Vitamins and supplements are popular among the health and nutrition community. However, a new report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that some of these supplements may not work as advertised.
The study, published by J. E. Manson and others, found that vitamin D and fish oil supplements do not help prevent cancer or serious heart problems as previously thought. In a press release from the Kaiser Health Network, Dr. Clifford Rosen of the Maine Medical Center Research Institute said that of the several studies done on the topic, this study is the strongest and indicates that the supplements have little to no effect on an individual’s risk for cancer or heart problems.
Maria McIntosh, a registered dietician at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, said that when research indicates a certain mineral is beneficial, those results are made in context of an individual’s overall diet and not in isolation. This leads to many consumers mistakenly buying specific supplements and expecting results rather than incorporating foods containing those nutrients into their normal diet.
“The results of this study are not surprising to me,” McIntosh said. “You can’t just pop a pill and expect to get the health benefits without considering your diet.”
According to McIntosh, vitamin D is essential to the human body because it helps absorb calcium for bones and teeth while fish oil is often consumed because it helps as a blood thinner. Both McIntosh and the Kaiser report agree that while fish oil and vitamin D supplements are not as beneficial as once believed, there is no harm in taking them aside from the cost of buying them.
“For the most part, these pills are expensive and consumers would be better off and their pocketbooks would be better off if they just bought healthier food instead,” she said.
In general, McIntosh advised consumers to consult with their doctors before taking any form of supplement since the ingredients could interfere with medication. Many supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and therefore doctors may not even be aware of the ingredients in them. She also said that while certain populations may need to take extra doses of vitamins, most supplements provide negligible benefits.
“Some people may need to take iron to help with their blood oxygen and many pregnant women may have to take folic acid to prevent birth defects,” she said. “For years people took ginkgo biloba because it was thought to stave off Alzheimer’s and help memory, but it interfered with blood thinning medications. Most multivitamins are fine but they don’t do anything except maybe give people a little bit more iron.”
Rather than rely on supplements to improve health, McIntosh recommends taking a holistic approach to health by exercising and eating a well-balanced diet. The original Kaiser Health Network report can be found here.