A CDC study released today found that half of the U.S. population takes vitamins and supplements. Half! The study showed that most adults take more supplements and minerals now more than ever before. The study states that “This report indicates high use of dietary supplements in the U.S. adult population during the past 20 years, with more than 40 percent of adults using one or more dietary supplements during 1988 to 1994, and over one-half of adults using supplements during 2003 to 2006.” The number is only on the rise, but what is it exactly that vitamins do? If half of us take them, how come we’re not any healthier? Obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and high blood pressure are all on the rise, so are we throwing our money away?
Vitamin and mineral supplements have their place in meeting dietary gaps, but you might want to think twice before popping a pill instead of eating your vegetables. When it comes to supplements, what we don’t know just might harm us. In the ‘90s, researchers found that beta carotene supplements increased the risk of lung cancer in smokers, despite the reported benefits of diets rich in beta carotene (found in carrots, kale, and sweet potatoes). High doses of synthetic folic acid have been linked to increased risk of colon cancer, particularly in genetically predisposed individuals, despite the fact that diets rich in natural folate from food (found in fruits, green vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and legumes) protect against gastrointestinal cancers. In some cases, super-high doses of certain supplements — like vitamin C or magnesium — can cause diarrhea. Furthermore, because some nutrients compete for absorption in our intestines, very high doses of one nutrient may impair absorption of another nutrient, leading to a deficiency.
- All Adults – We get most of our vitamin D from sunlight, which means that long winters, indoor lifestyles, wearing sunscreen during the summer, and darker skin pigmentation all contribute to vitamin D insufficiency. And most Americans’ diets lack the necessary vitamin D to maintain sufficient blood levels in the absence of adequate, year-round sun exposure. As a result, taking 400-2,000 IU/day of supplemental vitamin D3 (or for vegetarians, vitamin D2) may be a good idea for most adults.
- Vegetarians/Vegans/Older Americans – Strict vegetarians or vegans may not get enough vitamin B12 — found exclusively in animal-based foods. Some older Americans may lose their ability to properly absorb B12 from foods as they age. If you fall into either of these groups, consider a B12 supplement (2.4 mcg/day) or try adding nutritional yeast to your diet (try it on popcorn with a pinch of salt).
- Pregnant Women – Experts recommend taking 600 DFE/day of folic acid during pregnancy to ensure proper growth and development of the baby; emphasizing naturally folate-rich foods like asparagus, whole (or fortified) grains, cantaloupe, sunflower seeds, and bok choy can help meet your needs, too. Pregnant women may need some help meeting their elevated iron needs of 27mg/day, so talk to your doctor about whether you may also need an iron supplement.
- Women – Most women would benefit from a calcium supplement to ensure they meet their daily calcium requirements to help prevent osteoporosis. For women that eat fewer than 3 servings of dairy–or fortified, dairy-free substitutes like soymilk — per day, taking a calcium supplement of 500 to 1,000mg/day may help you bridge the gap.