Supplements: Worth the Extra Cost?

Did you know that according to the latest NHANES data from 2006, 53% of the US population takes at least one supplement on a regular basis? (Source) So, if supplements did all that they promised, you would think that our nation’s rate of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes would be lower, right? Research studies which have looked at supplement use and disease risk have often come up with neutral or negative results. Of course, that isn’t what they tell you at the store or in their commercials!
You know what is consistently linked with a lower risk of chronic disease? A high intake of fruits and vegetables.  The combined or synergistic effect of the variety of nutrients in fruits and vegetables are more effective than the isolated nutrients found in supplements. Something I am always happy to hear as fruits and vegetables are much cheaper than supplements. Plus, as a dietitian, I would much rather encourage patients to eat real food than take a pill.
Whole Foods PicTo get a better understanding of the science behind supplements, let’s take a quick look at some of the most recent research. Not all the research is negative, as you’ll see.

  • The Cochrane Library (known for doing excellent study reviews), looked at whether antioxidant supplements (like Vitamin C and E) had any effect on the prevention of disease in healthy persons and those with chronic disease. Antioxidant supplements had no effect on prevention of disease or mortality. In fact, they may slightly increase your risk by about 2%. (Source)
  • In a large study of over 38,000 older women (mean age 61.5), a 6% increased risk of mortality was associated with use of multivitamins and 10% for iron.  The only supplement with a 9% mortality risk reduction was calcium. (Source)
  • Supplements were unable to provide any effect on cardiovascular health risk after reviewing 50 studies. (Source)
  • The famous SELECT (Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial) found that Vitamin E supplementation increased prostate cancer risk by 13% in men 50+ years of age. (Source)
  • Omega 3 supplements and cardiovascular disease risk continues to be debatable – which surprised me! Even though supplementation can lower triglycerides, it has not consistently decreased mortality from cardiovascular disease. (Source)
  • Vitamin D supplementation appears to help prevent falls in the elderly and when combined with calcium, decrease risk of breast cancer by 14-20% per the Women’s Health Initiative Study. (Source)

Overall, it appears that taking supplements to try to ensure that you balance out a poor diet or prevent certain diseases is not going to work. You can’t just take a multivitamin or supplement as “insurance” and continue to eat a diet low in fresh fruits, vegetables, and fiber. A well rounded diet is much more effective for preventing chronic disease over time than supplementation in a healthy individual. Supplements are indicated in some cases such as deficiency as diagnosed by a physician or in early pregnancy (folic acid supplementation helps prevent neural tube defects). In any case, it is best to check with your doctor before starting any supplementation, especially if you are taking other medications. However, for most of us, I think spending a few extra dollars on a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will bring much more satisfaction and health benefits than many dollars better spent on a supplement.

What do you think? Do you take a multivitamin or other supplement?

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