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Vitamins and Supplements Are a “Waste of Money” for Most Americans, Say Scientists

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The vitamin and supplement industry in the United States was worth an astonishing $50 billion in 2021 alone, with studies reporting that > 50% of US adults are taking dietary supplements.


However, scientists from Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine have written an editorial in support of new guidelines explaining that vitamins are a waste of money for most healthy, non-pregnant Americans.


What is a vitamin?

Vitamins are organic molecules that organisms need in small quantities to ensure that their metabolism works properly. Each vitamin has its own role in the body.

Some vitamins, like vitamin D, can be produced in the body. Most vitamins need to come from food as we either cannot produce it ourselves or we cannot produce large enough quantities.

What are the new guidelines?

Dr. Jeffrey Linder, chief of general internal medicine in the department of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, is one of the authors of an editorial published June 21 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This editorial is in support of new guidelines from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel of specialists that provide evidence-based recommendations on clinical preventive services.


Linder explains, “Patients ask all the time, ‘What supplements should I be taking?’ They’re wasting money and focus thinking there has to be a magic set of pills that will keep them healthy when we should all be following the evidence-based practices of eating healthy and exercising.”


These recommendations from the USPSTF were based on a systematic review of 84 studies looking at whether taking either multivitamins, paired supplements or single supplements can prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) or cancer. This review concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” to support the use of these supplements in otherwise healthy, non-pregnant adults.


Linder adds, “The task force is not saying ‘don’t take multivitamins,’ but there’s this idea that if these were really good for you, we’d know by now.”


Nevertheless, the task force does issue a few specific recommendations against taking certain supplements. For example, they advise against taking beta-carotene supplements as these are possibly linked to an increased risk of lung cancer and advise against vitamin E supplements as they provide no net benefit for the reduction of mortality, CVD or cancer.


“The harm is that talking with patients about supplements during the very limited time we get to see them, we’re missing out on counseling about how to really reduce cardiovascular risks, like through exercise or smoking cessation,” Linder said.


In their editorial, Linder and colleagues write that more than half of adults in the US take dietary supplements and that this figure is expected to rise. The researchers explain that although fruits and vegetables are indeed associated with reduced risks of CVD and cancer, extracting the relevant vitamins and minerals into a pill form is no substitute for the real thing. They explain that whole fruits and vegetables come with numerous other beneficial components including phytochemicals, fiber and other vitamins that all work together to provide health benefits. Essentially, consuming these vitamins as supplements in isolation means they may behave differently than when they are naturally packaged with other nutrients.

Supplements are still useful in some contexts

The researchers made an important note that some people will still benefit from certain supplements. For example, those with vitamin deficiencies such as calcium and vitamin D do gain discernible benefits from supplementation, which can prevent fractures in older adults.


Additionally, co-author Dr. Natalie Cameron, an instructor of general internal medicine at Feinberg, stresses that the USPSTF guidelines do not apply to pregnant people or those trying to get pregnant. “Certain vitamins, such as folic acid, are essential for pregnant women to support healthy fetal development. The most common way to meet these needs is to take a prenatal vitamin. More data is needed to understand how specific vitamin supplementation may modify risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes and cardiovascular complications during pregnancy,” Cameron explains.

Healthier lifestyles may be easier said than done

The authors of these guidelines do, however, acknowledge that eating healthy and exercising do present a challenge in today’s society, in which the US industrialized food system does not prioritize health.


Co-author Dr. Jenny Jia, also an instructor of general internal medicine at Feinberg, studies chronic disease prevention through lifestyle changes in low-income families. Jia explains, “To adopt a healthy diet and exercise more, that’s easier said than done, especially among lower-income Americans. Healthy food is expensive, and people don’t always have the means to find environments to exercise—maybe it’s unsafe outdoors or they can’t afford a facility. So, what can we do to try to make it easier and help support healthier decisions?”


To this end, Jia over the last few years has worked with charitable food banks that supply groceries free of charge to those in need. The aim is to help both clients and those donating to the pantries pick healthier options.


Reference: Jia J, Cameron NA, Linder JA. Multivitamins and supplements—benign prevention or potentially harmful distraction? JAMA. 2022;327(23):2294-2295. doi: 10.1001/jama.2022.9167

 

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Northwestern University. Material has been edited for length and content.

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