Are Vitamins Just a Placebo?

Do we all really need to take multi-vitamin/ mineral supplements as the supplement sellers suggest? This has been a debatable topic with nutritionists for the past few years. Some studies suggest that they are really not necessary unless you are diagnosed with a particular vitamin/mineral deficiency or underlying health issue. Others say that vitamins are only placebos and are marketed to the “walking well” population. In other words, they show no benefits when taken by healthy people.

Supplements can be very expensive and some studies say they only add to the profits of the vast supplement industry. Every supplement consumer should be aware of these realities and make their own educated health care decisions.

Dietary Supplement Realities: What Consumers Need to Know

  • FDA does not approve, test, or regulate the manufacture or sale of dietary supplements.
  • The FDA has limited power to keep potentially harmful diet supplements off the market.
  • Dietary supplements may not have been tested for safety or effectiveness before they are sold.
  • Dietary supplements often do not list side effects, warnings, or drug or food interactions on product labels.
  • Ingredients listed on supplement labels may not include all active ingredients.
  •  Dietary supplements may not relieve problems or promote health and performance as advertised. Claims on labels are often vague and unsubstantiated by clinical trials.
  • Studies have shown that the multivitamin/mineral pills that most people take provide plenty of B vitamins and vitamin C, but little calcium. The intake of both calcium and Vitamin D may be less than optimum and should be discussed with your doctor.

One of the most serious consequences of supplements results when they are used as a remedy for health problems that can be treated, but not by vitamins or minerals. Vitamin and mineral supplements have NOT been found to prevent or treat heart disease, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, premature death, behavioral problems, sexual dysfunction, hair loss, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity, cataracts or stress. Some such as vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene may be harmful to certain groups of people. If taken, dosages should not be excessive.

Who may benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements? 

People with diagnosed vitamin and/or mineral deficiencies

Vegans (vitamin B12 and D)

Pregnant women (folate and iron)

Elderly persons on limited diets (multivitamin/minerals)

People on a restricted diet (multivitamins/minerals)

People at risk for osteoporosis (calcium, vitamin D)

People with alcoholism (multivitamin/minerals)

Elderly people diagnosed with vitamin B12, vitamin D and/or folate deficiency

  • Guidelines for Using Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
    Purchase products with USP (U.S. Pharmacopeia or the CL symbol (Consumer Laboratories) – tested for purity, ingredients, and dose.
    Choose supplements containing 100% of the Daily Value or less. Megadoses are not recommended.
    Take supplements with meals.
    Tell your health care provider about the supplements you take.

Source: Judith Brown, Nutrition Now, 2013.

Lori A. Smolin and Mary B. Grosvenor, Nutrition: Science and Applications, Third Edition.

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