Since March is National Nutrition Month, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that a healthy, variety-filled diet is the best way to get the nutrients we need.
For decades, vitamin and mineral supplements have carried a health halo. Many Americans believe they help lower their chances of getting a cold or flu while helping them function in a chaotic world. So it’s no wonder the supplement industry is booming.
Zinc promises to limit colds; vitamin D builds bone and boosts immunity; and the B vitamins promise to help combat the effects of stress. Even America’s favorite prehistoric family (also known as “The Flintstones”) has gotten in on the action, formulating the perfect pill to protect our children’s health. But what’s the truth, and what’s just marketing hype?
Knowing the difference between science and fiction when it comes to supplements can be challenging. There’s little oversight, a lot of misinformation and swarms of controversy. And that’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re trying to stay on top of your family’s health. So before you gulp down any more capsules, consider these 8 myths about supplements:
1. Myth: Taking a multi-vitamin can make up for a poor diet and prevent disease.
Reality: The fact is scientists are still undecided about whether multivitamins are effective. Some studies suggest multis protect against premature death. Others show they offer no benefit. Either way, food first is always the best prescription for needed nutrients. Nature packages vitamins and minerals in perfect combinations and benefits our bodies with yet-to-be-discovered nutrients, too. Dietary supplements are intended to supplement the diet, not replace it.
2. Myth: All supplements are safe because they are natural.
Reality: Anything that has the potential to be healing also has the potential to be harmful. Even though nutrients come from nature, when manufacturers process them into pill-form, they become unnatural. What’s more, natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective. After all, arsenic is natural but an effective carcinogenic (cancer-causer), making it unsafe to consume.
3. Myth: You can’t overdose on vitamins.
Reality: If you take vitamins and minerals while eating an amped-up diet of fortified cereals and sports bars (which often contain 100 percent or more of the recommended dietary allowance for certain vitamins and minerals), you could be overdoing it. You might even damage vital organs in the process. Too much vitamin A can affect your liver and, in pregnant moms, can lead to birth defects in their babies; excess vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage; and too much vitamin C can turn the famous antioxidant into a pro-oxidant (which damages body cells), not to mention the diarrhea.
4. Myth: Supplements are tightly regulated.
Reality: Unlike prescription or over-the-counter medications, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are safe and effective before they hit the marketplace. Instead, consumers are at the mercy of the manufacturer. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any safeguards in place. Once a dietary supplement is on the market, both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) monitor label information to ensure product claims aren’t misleading, but they are pretty understaffed and a lot of damage can be done before the FDA and FTC can get involved. There are a small group of watchdog organizations, including U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com and the National Science Foundation, offering seals of approval to products that are manufactured properly and contain the ingredients listed on the label. Those groups do not determine if they are effective, however.
5. Myth: Supplements are never necessary.
Reality: Dietary supplements may be beneficial for certain populations and to help manage various conditions. Examples include:
- Someone on a calorie-restricted diet who may benefit from a multivitamin and mineral
- Someone who is allergic to milk who may benefit from calcium and vitamin D
- A vegan who may benefit from taking vitamin B12
- Pregnant moms who benefit from taking folic acid
The jury is out on many supplements, but most experts believe products are only helpful if you’re deficient in a given nutrient. Women who lose a lot of iron due to heavy menstrual bleeding, for example, might need an additional iron supplement while those who are going through menopause may need extra calcium and vitamin D.
6. Myth: Supplements don’t interact with medications.
Reality: Certain supplements, including vitamin K (which helps blood clot), zinc (which some people believe boosts immunity) and omega-3s (which thin the blood), may interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications. Whether you’re taking a daily aspirin to protect against heart disease or you’re on an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, the supplements you’re taking could interfere or enhance the effects of your medications. You should always share with your physician and pharmacist a list of any supplements you are currently taking to help avoid these negative interactions.
7. Myth: You should take vitamins and other supplements on an empty stomach.
Reality: Many vitamins are water soluble—meaning they dissolve in water and will be absorbed by the body at almost any time of the day, regardless of what’s in your tummy. But there are 4 fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E and K—that can only be absorbed with fat. So if you are taking a multivitamin that contains a fat-soluble vitamin, it’s best to take it with a little food that contains some fat. Also, many find that taking a supplement on an empty stomach makes them nauseous.
8. Myth: Supplements always play well together.
Reality: Some supplements help each other out, just like teammates. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, for example. Others actually work against each other. For example, calcium blocks the absorption of iron, and zinc blocks copper absorption. So taking high doses of one nutrient can actually cause a deficiency in another.
To play it safe, let your doctor know about every supplement you’re taking, even if you think it’s harmless. Many vitamins and minerals, as well as herbal supplements, have side effects ranging from a rash to stomach upset. They can also interact with medications and other vitamins.
If you think you have a deficiency in certain vitamins or minerals or worry you are at risk of developing one, speak with your primary care provider.