Up to three-quarters of American adults take some kind of vitamin or supplement, so there's a pretty good chance you're one of them. That's a lot of people purchasing substances that aren't evaluated by the FDA, and for the most part don't work.
What's more, vitamins and supplements are only getting more popular, with sales growing 50% faster than those of over-the-counter drugs over the past several years. Basically, most of you are throwing money away on magical beans -- stop it already!
There's not a whole lot of regulation, which is good for sales pitches
One of the curious traits of the dietary supplement industry is that makers of vitamins and supplements don't actually have to prove their products do what they say they'll do. In fact, the FDA is pretty hands-off in terms of most things supplement-related, meaning the multibillion-dollar dietary supplement industry is, essentially, self-policed.
"In medicine, we are primarily concerned with illness," says Dr. Steven Lamm, professor of medicine and the medical director of NYU Langone's Preston Robert Tisch Center for Men's Health. "But the public has a very strong desire to promote wellness. This has created a kind of void -- and things like vitamins and supplements have rushed to fill it."
According to Dr. Lamm, one reason for the lax regulation and testing that surrounds supplements is that the kind of trials necessary to "prove" a given drug works are insanely expensive. The only way to justify the cost would be to obtain a patent, giving the producer the right to exclusive sales, but you can't just go out and patent vitamin D.
Of course, there have been large studies conducted on vitamins' effectiveness, but results can be hazy at best, contradictory at worst, and rarely, if ever, demonstrate a causal link between a positive outcome and a vitamin supplement.
The science of vitamins', well, inconclusiveness has been well established enough in the medical community that some researchers will pen articles with aggressive titles like, "Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements."
Health claims are enticing, and placebos are powerful
Pop quiz, hot shot: which is more comforting to believe? Taking an over-the-counter supplement will make you healthier, happier, and live longer? Or that decline, disease, and death will inevitably strike us all?
If you picked the first option, you're just like most people! When you read that little line that says, "Helps improve cognitive performance," you may know it hasn't been evaluated by the FDA… but you kind of want it to be true, right?
That's part of what makes the placebo effect so powerful that sometimes even fake drugs work on patients with very real conditions. The combination of aggressive claims and a public that wants to be convinced is what makes the dietary supplement industry so lucrative. Still…
Vitamins aren't just costly; they can be dangerous
Vitamins don't just give you expensive urine, as the cliche goes. "One of the most common reasons why people take vitamin and mineral supplements is because they believe that supplements will prevent the development of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's," says Dr. Eliseo Guallar, professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "But the evidence accumulated so far in large clinical trials indicates, overall, that supplements do not prevent most chronic diseases. In fact, in some cases, supplements can be harmful."
The effects go beyond an upset stomach. Too much vitamin A, for example, can cause everything from fatigue and depression to bleeding lungs and liver damage. Or consider an iron supplement, which in extreme cases (usually in accidental overdoses by kids) causes extreme gastrointestinal distress, which can be followed by liver failure, shock, and death.
Be selective with your vitamin intake
There are some valuable vitamins and supplements that provide real health benefits. This is especially true for specific populations with particular dietary needs, like vegans or the elderly.
"People are under the impression that vitamins are healthy and safe, and so they take more and more of them," says Wolf. "It's not their fault -- they are being misled."
"For vitamins that are not water soluble -- that is, those that are stored in your fat cells -- taking too much can definitely be dangerous… the FDA should inform the public about these dangers," adds Dr. Lamm.
Popping a pill is a deceptively easy solution. But it's not that much harder to make educated food choices.
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