The In and Out of Dietary Supplements

by Abigail Wang

Most people are introduced to supplements in their younger years—clear plastic jars packed with tropical colors, equipped with lids requiring a push-and-twist maneuver, and labels proclaiming the revered instructions: Take two per day.” These are the multivitamins of youth, gummy bears or chewable dinosaurs that promise easy access to all of the essential nutrients necessary for radiant health.

The incorporation of dietary supplements into many people's lives often begins with multivitamins, but becomes more extensive as calcium, iron, fish oil, B vitamins, C vitamins, and D vitamins, are added into adulthood. Their benefits are widely touted: stronger bones, healthier hearts, more robust immune systems. Of course, vitamins and minerals are absolutely essential for the proper functioning of the body and its innumerable processes, from circulating blood to assisting finer enzyme action.

Reliance on synthetically produced supplements has thus become a natural part of daily life. Americans spend about $30 billion on supplements each year, clear evidence of the willingness of people to invest in products that are thought to prevent diseases and deficiencies, providing a sort of safety net” for health.

Despite the positive reputation of dietary supplements in the public sphere, concerns regarding their risks and general effectiveness have emerged, raising some provocative questions. Along with musings over what would happen if one were to eat three gummy vitamins as opposed to the recommended two, some wonder if supplements can cause cancer, become toxic, or lead to nutrient malabsorption. Perhaps these vitamins and minerals are not even absorbed by the body, nullifying their intended healthful benefits.

The research to date on dietary supplements suggests that they are best approached with good judgment and a practical attitude. Studies that focus on their possible drastic effects like prevention and protection against strokes, cancer, and heart disease are largely inconclusive, and experts voice contrasting views, disagreeing on the extent to which supplements can be relied upon. For example, Harvey Simon, M.D., editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch, advises against taking multivitamins out of concern for potential cancer risk. Conversely, other groups and figures find no harm in taking a multivitamin in moderation. David Schardt, M.S., of the nutrition advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, describes taking a multivitamin as a very inexpensive insurance policy,” and David Grotto, a registered dietician of the American Dietetic Association says, There is no harm in taking a once-daily multivitamin, as long as you select one based on your age and sex. Take one daily or just on days when your diet is inadequate. But better than a multivitamin is to fill in the gaps with food that offers so much more than supplements.”

A recent report published by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force just last month further confirms that uncertainty revolving around the effects of vitamins and supplements on major diseases is warranted, highlighting the importance of more extensive research with the intention of reaching a more definite conclusion. The report also stresses an additional significant finding: Beta-carotene, a compound that gives way to vitamin A, may be implicated in increased lung cancer risk. Such a discovery adds another dimension to the debate.

Ultimately, the consensus is that taking higher than the recommended doses of dietary supplements may result in harmful levels of toxicity. And, as indicated by Grotto, experts agree that the best way to obtain vitamins and minerals is not via pills and tablets, but instead through eating a varied, balanced diet. This is due to the complex makeup of natural foods which contain a variety of other nutritious substances and compounds that all collaborate to promote optimal absorption. Such an effect may be lost in the dietary supplement.

If there is no conscious focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet, relying on food to attain all of the necessary vitamins and minerals can be somewhat difficult. Thus, certain supplements can help in certain circumstances. Pregnant women, vegetarians, vegans, the elderly, and people suffering from deficiencies or intolerances are especially recommended to take supplements appropriately to ensure health in challenging situations. Even the average person can have difficulty obtaining vitamins and minerals like calcium and vitamin D and may feel more comfortable taking a supplement as a precaution, after consulting a physician.

For those who decide to take supplements, it’ s important to consider that each vitamin and mineral is best absorbed taken in certain forms and under certain conditions. For example, calcium carbonate when taken with meals is an advised source of calcium due to the role of stomach acids in calcium uptake. Iron is optimally absorbed with water and vitamin C on an empty stomach. Folic acid is most effective when taken alone. Special conditions apply to natural sources of these nutrients as well. Soaking grains to access more zinc and getting plenty of sunlight are valuable measures for enhancing natural nutrient uptake.

Beneficial complements to the average diet, dietary supplements should be just that: supplements. Useful in moderation, they are not a replacement for eating healthfully and should be taken with a clear understanding of how to best reap their benefits in safe amounts.