Supplemental Waste

Gummy, pill, or chewable, big or small—they’ve got it all.

Are you a woman over the age of 50? Take this vitamin to strengthen your bones!

Loosing your memory? Swallow this supplement and gain elephant-like recall!

Can’t stomach pills? Try these gummy vitamins for adults!

Whatever your age, malady, current worry or future concern, there’s a vitamin or supplement marketed toward you.

But experts suggest the vita-craze Americans are experiencing may all be for naught. And the millions of dollars spent yearly to fight diseases they don’t yet have might have been better spent in the produce section.

“You can take all the vitamins in the world, but if you don’t have a healthy diet, it’s not going to do any good,” said Laurie Rosales, a registered and licensed dietician at the Wexner Medical Center.

People look at vitamins as a way to get healthy quick or prevent something inevitable, Rosales said. But if someone is lacking in a nutrient or feels they need more of something, they should be getting that through their food.

“Diet and eating is the number-one priority for people,” she said. “(People should be) getting all the essential vitamins and minerals through eating and then relying on vitamins as a second option.”

Three articles* about studies concerning the usefulness of supplements published in the Dec. 17 issue of “Annals of Internal Medicine” back up Rosales’ claim. The conclusion: most supplements do not prevent chronic disease and may even be harmful.

“We believe that the case is closed,” the authors wrote. “Supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”

The long and short of it? Vitamins are a waste of money. And about half of Americans are falling victim.

Though supplements don’t help with prevention, they can be helpful for those with injuries or chronic diseases. If someone suffers from Crohn’s disease, for example, the ulcers throughout the digestive tract prevent the body from properly absorbing nutrients. In this case, Rosales said, a doctor might recommend a multivitamin or iron supplement. If a woman is pregnant or has low bone density, a doctor may recommend a prenatal or calcium supplement. While vitamins won’t prevent these issues, they can be helpful in treatment.

There’s a responsibility involved with getting an annual or biannual checkup at a family physician to discover what the body might be lacking.

“It’s very important to have blood work done before you just start taking things,” Rosales said.

Dr. Jason Dapore, a sports medicine physician with Ohio Health Sports Medicine and a team physician for the Columbus Blue Jackets, said there should really be a reason for everything you put in your mouth—especially athletes in training.

“[People] get real aggressive and diligent with outlining the training program then fall short in planning how they’re going to fuel their system,” Dapore said.

And that extra energy should be coming from food, Dapore said. Don’t just settle for unleaded, aim for premium. If that still isn’t enough, then it might be time for some professional maintenance.

“If they find they’re falling short of their goals or they have low energy levels, that would be the time to go see their doctor,” Dapore said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all … each of us has different needs and tolerances of what we can put into our body.”

The spectrum is broad, and if someone does need a supplement, Dapore put heavy emphasis on assuring that you’re actually consuming what’s on the label. A study out of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, published in October found that 59 percent of the American herbal supplements tested contained plants or other contaminants not listed on the label. That could pose serious health risks for people with allergies.

Even if the supplement is pure, Rosales said there could be side effects. Some vitamins—such as vitamin D—can reach toxic levels. Other supplements, like vitamin C, could just go in one end and out the other.

“There can just be levels where you consume enough of something that your body gets rid of it,” she said. “There comes a point where your body doesn’t need that much and won’t utilize it.”

And that is simply a waste of money.

*Eliseo Guallar, MD, DrPH; Saverio Stranges, MD, PhD; Cynthia Mulrow, MD, MSc, Senior Deputy Editor; Lawrence J. Appel, MD, MPH; and Edgar R. Miller III, MD, PhD, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” ACP’s Annals of Internal Medicine, 17 Dec. 2013, Vol 159, No. 12.