According to a 2019 survey, some 80% of Americans take vitamins or supplements, and the global market for all supplements, including vitamins, is expected to soar past 230 billion by 2027, according to a February report by a market research firm. That’s a lot of horse pills, capsules, and brightly colored gummies!
But that doesn’t necessarily mean we all need to be taking them, or even that it’s safe to do so. Before you pop a pill (or don’t!), we wanted to separate fact from fiction. Here are five important questions about vitamins and supplements, answered by doctors and dietitians.
Do I really need to take vitamins and supplements?
Some people do need them—specifically, people with a vitamin deficiency, says David Jenkins, M.D., a professor of medicine and nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital. For instance, about a quarter of adults in the U.S. have insufficient levels of vitamin D, research shows, because it’s found in relatively few foods (fatty fish, dairy, fortified cereals). Plus, our bodies are designed to synthesize the nutrient from the sun, says Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., R.D.N., assistant professor of nutrition studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but factors including age, skin pigmentation, and sunscreen use can influence how much your body makes.
Still, you might hold off on popping a multivitamin “just because.” A 2019 study suggests that supplements don’t extend lifespan as much as eating the same amount of vitamins in food. In one review, Dr. Jenkins and other researchers found that taking supplements regularly had no effect on heart health or the risk of early death.
Isn’t it better to get your vitamins through food?
While it is better to get your nutrients through food—“With food, you’re getting the whole nutrient package,” says Kitchin—a well-balanced plate is no guarantee that you’ll get everything you need. People who have absorption issues or chronic diseases or are pregnant may require supplementation, says Melissa Majumdar, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
And some nutrients are hard to get through diet alone. Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products like meat and dairy; for vegetarians, B12 supplements may make sense. And our bodies need a lot of calcium, Majumdar says, “so many people do need calcium supplements to get their levels up.” Talk to your doctor or dietitian about how to measure and monitor your levels.
How can I make sure my vitamins and supplements are legit?
There’s a range of reliability when it comes to vitamin brands. Some of them “don’t always have in them what they say they have,” says Kitchin. Look for brands vetted as A-OK by an independent third party. Scan the labels for the symbols of the nonprofit United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF International, suggests Majumdar. (Last May, CVS announced it would sell only supplements that had been third-party tested.)
Vigilance is vital, since the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate vitamins the same way it regulates medications. “Supplement manufacturers are responsible for the safety and quality of their products, but there’s no regulatory agency checking in,” says Majumdar. Steer clear of products that promise a quick cure, a money-back guarantee, or treatment for a specific disease.
Pills vs. gummies: Which is better?
This is a bummer because gummies are a treat. But while gummy vitamins can be helpful to people who aren’t able to swallow tablets or capsules, generally they’re not the best option. In fact, a 2017 analysis by ConsumerLab, a company that conducts safety and quality testing of consumer products, found that four out of five gummy products failed their tests, the highest rate of any supplement type. Gummies that didn’t receive a passing grade often had different amounts of ingredients than those listed on the label, and some contained impurities. “We’re seeing improvements since 2017, but we’re still concerned,” says Tod Cooperman, M.D., president of ConsumerLab. His advice? Check for those third-party certifications, and opt for tablets or capsules when possible.
Can you take too many vitamins and supplements?
With water-soluble vitamins, your body absorbs what it needs and flushes out most of what it doesn’t through your kidneys, but fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are stored in your body’s fat deposits. “That means they’re more likely to build up to toxic levels if you’re regularly exceeding the upper limits,” says Kitchin.
Even water-soluble vitamins can cause problems if taken in excess. Megadoses of vitamin C, for instance, can trigger tummy upset like cramps and diarrhea. And too much zinc may compromise your immune system or lower your HDL (“good” cholesterol). Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, be sure your dose doesn’t exceed the daily recommended value for the vitamins inside the bottle.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Prevention.
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