What’s on the menu for discussion today? The more than 90,000 dietary supplement products for sale. They make up a market valued at an estimated $35 billion annually in this country. We are talking about the pills, capsules and powders that, according to Healthline, make up 5 percent of all grocery sales in the United States.
According to Kaiser Health News, more than half of Americans take vitamin supplements. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, that percentage jumps to 68 percent of Americans when looking at those ages 65 and older. Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults use herbal supplements, according to Healthline. According to a Journal of Nutrition study published in 2017, of these older adults, 29 percent take four or more supplements of varying kinds. Can we say with certainty that these supplements are doing the job intended? Apparently, they might not be.
Since 1999, the National Institutes of Health has spent more than $2.4 billion studying vitamins and minerals. Despite those efforts, there remains no conclusive evidence that dietary supplements prevent chronic disease in the average American. What has also been shown is that reports of encouraging preliminary studies of a promising dietary supplement can lead to buy-in by millions of people. Keeping up with the latest nutrition research can be a frustrating pursuit. Before countering evidence can be shown, supplementing habits are formed — that are not easily broken.
“There’s something appealing about taking a natural product, even if you’re taking it in a way that is totally unnatural,” explains Catherine Price, the author of “Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food,” in an interview with Kaiser Health News.
Lost in the shuffle in this discussion is the fact that populations that eat a lot of fruits and vegetables tend to be healthier than others without supplements; no amount of supplementing can ultimately compensate for a poor diet. As pointed out by Healthline, Americans eat fast food because it is cheap. They also buy more processed foods and fewer fruits and vegetables because the packaged goods cost less and keep longer. Yet we are also perfectly willing to spend on supplemental products that are neither tasty nor cheap in hopes they will counter the damage we have done, or are doing, to our health.
As pointed out by Kaiser Health News, when researchers try to deliver the key ingredients of a healthy diet in a capsule, those efforts nearly always fail. Marjorie McCullough, the strategic director of nutritional epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, tells Kaiser Health News that she has come to believe that the chemicals in the fruits and vegetables on our plate work together in ways that scientists do not fully understand and simply cannot be replicated in a tablet.
What we are also learning is that even the much-maligned Western diet most Americans consume contains plenty of the essentials. It may have unhealthy levels of sodium, sugar, saturated fat and calories, but it is not short on vitamins. From vitamin D in milk, to iodine in salt, to B vitamins in flour — even calcium in some brands of orange juice — the fast, processed-food American diet is highly fortified.
Preliminary findings can also sometimes lead researchers to the wrong conclusions. For example, when studies of large populations showed that people who eat lots of seafood had fewer heart attacks, it was widely believed that the benefits came from the omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil. Alice Lichtenstein, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, has another theory. Could it be possible the benefits of eating sardines and salmon have nothing to do with fish oil, but rather the fact that people who have fish for dinner may be healthier due to what they do not eat, such as meatloaf and cheeseburgers?
While it may continue to be acceptable to take a daily multivitamin “for insurance,” what seem to be uniformly agreed upon are the dangers in “megadosing” with vitamins and minerals: taking in amounts that people could never consume through food alone.
“Vitamins are not inert,” Dr. Eric Klein, a prostate cancer expert at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Kaiser News. “They are biologically active agents. We have to think of them in the same way as drugs. If you take too high a dose of them, they cause side effects.”
In speaking with CBS News, Dr. Helene Glassberg, an associate professor of clinical cardiovascular medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Medicine, says that for someone looking to prevent heart disease, at the top of her list is lifestyle. “Get it in your diet if you can, from omega-3 fatty fish like salmon or sardines,” she says. “That’s the place to start because these are natural. This is the best way to get it and not spend $30 on a bottle of supplements at a health food store.”
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