Vitamins and supplements are widely available in pill form, but dietitians recommend that most people get their vitamins and nutrients from eating and drinking food. David Grace photo.
Local dietitian Lisa Gilreath says she would much rather see her patients spend their money on healthy foods rather than on several different vitamin and mineral supplements that may or may not offer any health benefits.
A recent article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine seems to support Gilreath’s line of thinking.
The article reveals that of the three different studies that looked into the benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements, none was found.
The studies analyzed the effects of supplements on cardiovascular disease, cancer, mortality and cognitive decline, and found that there were no significant differences between people who took vitamin supplements and people who didn't.
“If you think you need, or want, a supplement, if there’s a particular nutrient that you think you need, the best source of a nutrient is always going to be a food that contains that nutrient,” said Gilreath, who is a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at Indian Path’s Health Resources Center.
“There are a number of reasons for this. When it comes from a food, a nutrient is going to be a naturally occurring source versus an artificially created vitamin or mineral. And also, nutrients tend to complement other nutrients. So, a lot of times, a food that contains one nutrient, one vitamin or a mineral, will also contain some of the other vitamins or minerals or other major nutrients like proteins or carbohydrates that help that nutrient to be utilized better.”
Gilreath says milk is a great example of this.
“People think if they need more calcium, they should just take a calcium tablet. But, if they do, that’s all they’re going to get, just the calcium. If you drink milk, you’re also getting a nice balance of calcium and phosphorus and vitamin D and protein. Milk gives you a nice mix of all the nutrients that usually a person is looking for to get healthy bones or strong teeth,” she said.
Gilreath says health experts will tell you that if you’re eating a healthy, well-balanced diet with plenty of variety and moderation, you should be able to get every nutrient you need — sans supplements.
“But, the problem is, most of us aren’t always getting a healthy, well-balanced diet. So, I tell people if you want a little insurance, then take one multivitamin a day. Take something that’s got a little bit of everything in it rather than trying to concoct your own configuration of vitamins and minerals. When you take a multivitamin, the research and studies have been done to make sure that the nutrients are in the appropriate balance within that one pill versus you taking a whole handful of stuff,” she said.
With this being peak cold season, many folks may find themselves reaching for the vitamin C or zinc, both of which have been thought to help in the prevention or severity of colds.
“There has been some evidence that zinc supplementation, especially in children, could help prevent the cold. Since zinc is a mineral that is important for our immune function, the fact that it could help makes sense,” said Jennifer Walker, a dietitian at the Great Body Company Wellness Center.
However, she adds, evidence does not support that vitamin C does anything to prevent a cold.
“[Studies] report that the placebo effect seems to go a long way in helping people believe that something works, especially if it’s a remedy that has been passed down from older generations,” she said. “And once you have a cold, all you can do is treat the symptoms. But as far as prevention, really nothing is better than washing your hands for the prevention of a cold.”
Gilreath says although most healthy folks do not need to take vitamin or mineral supplements, there are times that supplements can be beneficial.
“If there is a documented deficiency, sometimes people do need a supplement. Some medications will deplete certain nutrients or maybe they have some kind of medical condition. For example, pregnant women need a higher level of folic acid. But, for the most part, the general population does not need to be taking a whole handful of supplements. They can be as expensive as medications and who wants one more pill to have to take? I personally would rather eat and drink my nutrients than to have to swallow them in a pill.”