Are vitamins a waste of money? A new study says yes

Like most people, you probably have a stash of vitamin and mineral supplements in your bathroom cabinet. In fact, nearly 70 percent of people take supplements, according to the industry trade association, the Council for Responsible Nutrition. Fueled by an increasing focus on health and “wellness,” dietary supplements have become so popular that they’re now a $32 billion industry.

But do they actually improve your health? Several studies have found that taking supplements aren’t associated with living longer and now a massive new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, shows that the vast majority won’t help you live a longer life or reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems.

In order to learn whether diet or supplements were more beneficial, researchers combed through 277 randomized clinical trials that examined 16 vitamins or other supplements, along with eight diets associated with reduced mortality and heart problems, ranging from coronary heart disease to stroke and heart attacks. In total, the studies included data on nearly 1 million people worldwide.

According to Science Daily: “The majority of the supplements including multivitamins, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D alone, calcium alone and iron showed no link to increased or decreased risk of death or heart health.”

“For the purpose of primary prevention, there’s no benefit for taking any of these supplements for all-cause mortality or cardiovascular mortality,” Prashant Vaishnava, a cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital, who was not involved in the study, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

However, although the effect was considered “low,” the study did find that taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements reduced heart attack risk by 8 percent and coronary heart disease risk by 7 percent. The research also showed that taking folic acid supplements lowered the risk of stroke by 20 percent.

There are some important exceptions — namely, for pregnant women who need additional folic acid and iron and for people who have known vitamin or mineral deficiencies. “If there’s a known micronutrient deficiency, then it would behoove someone to supplement,” says Vaishnava. In other words, don’t drop your dietary supplement because of this study if you’re taking one prescribed by your physician or nutritionist.

Photo: Getty Images
Are you wasting your money on vitamin and mineral supplements? (Photo: Getty Images)

Meagan Moyer, director of clinical nutrition at Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “If someone came to me and had a full lab panel and are deficient in iron, I would absolutely say, ‘Let’s take an iron supplement.’ But I also want you to focus on foods that have a lot of this particular vitamin or mineral. Our bodies will always use the vitamins and minerals that are in food much better than in supplements.”

Moyer adds that since the Food and Drug Administration cannot keep track of every supplement and its effectiveness, for those who take them it’s important to choose a high-quality brand that actually contains the ingredients and dosage stated on the label. She recommends looking for the USP (The United States Pharmacopeia) verified mark, which can be found on the supplement’s label. “It’s a third party organization that looks at the quality of the product and does an analysis on it,” she says.

Also, just because vitamin and mineral supplements are over-the-counter, doesn’t mean they’re always safe. As Vaishnava points out: “It’s important to understand that supplements can be harmful because they can interact with medication — at least in the cardiovascular population. Many patients take blood thinners and they are notorious for interacting with other drugs. So we are very careful in what patients are taking.”

What does help you live a longer, heart-healthy life? Eating a healthy diet. As Moyer points out: “You can’t out-supplement an unhealthy diet. It’s very much along this ‘take a pill and everything will be okay’ mentality we have with health and medicine.”

In looking at diets that can help improve health, the meta-analysis found that reducing salt intake in particular lowers the risk of death. “But we know that already,” points out Vaishnava. “It reduces the risk of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular mortality in hypertensive patients.”

Bottom line: If you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and do not have any nutritional deficiencies, you don’t need to pop those vitamin and mineral supplements.

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