The new dietary supplement: Food


Are you among the 34 percent of Americans aged 20-39 who take a dietary supplement each day? Maybe your parents raised you on Flintstones-shaped vitamins to get you excited about the habit. But should you keep popping those pills? According to an increasingly robust body of research, the answer is no.

Young adults most commonly cite health improvement or health maintenance as their reason for taking supplementary vitamins, according to a 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine. Their faith is misplaced. “We believe that the case is closed—supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful,” concluded an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year. “These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”

Vitamins linked to earlier deaths
Certain vitamins taken with the goal of preventing intestinal cancers actually increased mortality, according to a 2004 review of studies by the Cochrane Collaboration. Three years later, a study of 11,000 men by the National Cancer Institute found that those who took multivitamins were twice as likely to die from advanced prostate cancer as those who did not. In 2012, another research review by Cochrane found that beta-carotene and vitamin E supplements “seem to increase” the risk of earlier death.

Dietary supplements aren’t necessary
“Most people who eat a reasonable diet will get everything they need in the food that they eat,” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told The Guardian newspaper last year. (The exceptions might be people on certain special diets, like vegans or people who live in climates that are never sunny, he added.)

Where did the supplement myth come from?
Claims to the contrary are likely founded in flaky research methodology and misunderstandings. “Supplement users tend to be wealthier and healthier than non-users,” wrote pharmacist Scott Gavura in a post for Science-Based Medicine last year. “It’s the ‘healthy user’ effect which shows up throughout epidemiological studies, confounding evaluations of outcomes. That is, we shouldn’t assume supplement use make you healthier, any more than assuming that supplement use makes you wealthier.”

How then to get your vitamins?
It seems we must resort to food. Eat produce of all colors in the rainbow. Each hue represents a different blend of nutrients, and if you cover the spectrum you’re well on your way to complete nutrition.

It’s always useful to remember food writer Michael Pollan’s nutrition maxim: “Eat [unprocessed] food, mostly plants, not too much.” That’s a message even a caveman can understand.