by Nicole Wilkes
Photography courtesy of the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements Twitter
Nearly half of American adults take multivitamins/multiminerals (MVM’s). The terms are deeply associated with health, vitality and disease prevention. However, products like MVM’s as well as dietary and herbal supplements are hotly debated when it comes to their necessity, effectiveness and safety.
Dietary supplements (a term that includes the products listed above) are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but the companies that produce them are responsible for evaluating their own products for safety and accurate labeling. The FDA can only evaluate these products for their safety, but not effectiveness, before they hit American shelves. If the supplement manufacturer is proven to have made an unsafe product or misleading nutrition label, the FDA has the capacity to take legal action against them.
The FDA notes that no one should take MVM’s to completely replace meals or an overall healthy diet. Foods that are naturally high in essential vitamins and minerals also have other health benefits, such as fiber, that MVM’s do not. Further, taking MVM’s if you already eat a vitamin-rich diet can potentially increase your risk of getting too much of certain nutrients, especially iron, vitamin A, zinc, and foltate/folic acid. While the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that most Americans would not be negatively affected by taking a MVM, be sure to avoid taking more than one basic, once-daily MVM, as this can also cause you to ingest too much of certain nutrients.
Natalia Tanko (CAS ’20) said she doesn’t take any dietary supplements because she doesn’t think they’re necessary.
“I eat pretty healthy and listen to my body to see what it needs rather than taking anything,” she said. “If I feel like I’m missing something from my diet, I usually look up what foods contain what I’m looking for and try to fix it that way.”
This is not to say, of course, that supplements are all bad or even useless. Single vitamin and mineral supplements (such as iron or zinc) can be beneficial for individuals who do not get enough of a certain substance from their diet because of a medical condition or dietary restriction. MVM’s can also be helpful for individuals who, despite their best efforts, fail to get enough necessary vitamins and minerals.
Brittney AuYoung (CAS ’20) said she started taking a daily multivitamin following a surgery that prevented her from resuming her normal eating habits right away.
“I lost a lot of nutrients since I wasn’t eating normally due to the physical strain,” she said, “Now, I take a vitamin to make up for when I don’t get enough fruits and vegetables.”
When shopping for supplements you should look for products on noncommercial websites, such as FDA.gov, USDA.gov and NIH.gov. These are government-run sites that will only give you objective, factual information. Other sites are likely trying to sell these supplements and are therefore more likely to paint them in a more positive, perhaps dishonest light.
Watch out for claims that sound too good to be true and learn to be suspicious of products with hyperbolic advertisements (such as “has no side effects” and “miracle product”).
Be mindful of the fact that there is little regulation over what can be marketed as “natural.” Even if something is technically “natural” that does not make it automatically good for you.
Ask your health care provider before going ahead and taking any supplements. Tell your doctor about your lifestyle and diet and let them tell you whether or not a certain supplement is right for you.