Nutritional supplements could be a 'waste of money' for healthy or non-pregnant people

A balanced diet is the key.
Mert Erdemir
Nutiritonal supplements.stock_colors/iStock

If you're paying at least a little bit of attention to what you eat and drink, chances are you've heard of nutritional supplements. Many people use them in order to fill the nutritional gaps in their diets. They have become so popular that they can be found in various forms, such as tablets, capsules, drinks, etc.

Scientists from Northwestern Medicine, however, suggest that supplemental vitamins are a waste of money for non-pregnant and healthy Americans. In the press release that has just been published today, they also add that there isn't enough evidence supporting the idea that supplements help prevent cardiovascular disease or cancer.

“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,” said Dr. Jeffrey Linder, chief of general internal medicine in the department of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Their efficiency is not proven

Based on a comprehensive assessment of 84 research, the United States Preventive Services Task Force's  (USPSTF) new guidelines declare that there is "insufficient evidence" that taking multivitamins and paired or single supplements will help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer not otherwise healthy, non-pregnant individuals.

The task force does not recommend taking beta-carotene due to a possible increased risk of lung cancer and vitamin E since its benefit in reducing mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer is not proven.

“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.

Many Americans take supplements

In relation to the appeal of supplements addressing nutritional deficiencies in their diet, people in the United States spent about $50 billion on vitamins and dietary supplements in 2021. Linder and his team also state in the study released in the journal JAMA editorial that more than half of the adults in the United States take dietary supplements, and their use is expected to increase.

Assuming that key vitamins and minerals could be extracted in the form of pills rather than pursuing a balanced diet may seem much more accessible to people. On the other hand, the research team asserts that fruits and vegetables contain a mixture of vitamins, phytochemicals, fiber, and other nutrients which work synergistically. Therefore, micronutrients taken alone may have different effects on the body.

However, it's important to note that Linder stated that individuals with a vitamin deficiency can still benefit from dietary supplements. Plus, the new USPSTF guidelines are not valid for those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

“Pregnant individuals should keep in mind that these guidelines don’t apply to them,” said Cameron, who also is a Northwestern Medicine physician. “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 the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes and cardiovascular complications during pregnancy,” wrote the JAMA editorial co-author Dr. Natalie Cameron, an instructor of general internal medicine at Feinberg. 

“To adopt a healthy diet and exercise more, that’s easier said than done, especially among lower-income Americans,” said Dr. Jenny Jia, a co-author of the JAMA editorial who studies the prevention of chronic diseases in low-income families through lifestyle interventions. 

This, then, raises the question of how can people with lower income maintain a healthy diet in an industrialized food system which does not prioritize health? 

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