An editorial in JAMA says vitamins and supplements are a distraction from better proven ways to boost health, including exercise and healthy eating.
The editorial supports major new recommendations from the United States Preventive Services Task Force that says there’s insufficient evidence that taking multivitamins and supplements can help prevent major diseases.
To prevent disease, maintain and improve health, and support athletic performance, researchers say to focus on diet and physical activity.
Vitamins and supplements represent a brisk business—people in the U.S. in 2021 spent about $50 billion on them—but an editorial in JAMA supports major new recommendations from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) suggesting that money would be better spent on exercise and healthy foods instead.
The USPSTF’s new guidelines are based on a review of 84 studies, and the conclusion is that there is insufficient evidence that taking multivitamins or supplements can help prevent major issues like cardiovascular disease and cancer.
In some cases, they can actually be harmful. For example, the task force highlighted how taking beta-carotene supplements could increase risk of lung cancer. Other research has shown that too much vitamin D is associated with elevated blood calcium and kidney stones, and high vitamin A levels are connected to decreased bone density.
The exception is for those who are pregnant, or trying to get pregnant, because supplements like folic acid have been shown to support fetal development, as well as maternal heart health. But for the majority of people? Not so much. (Those whose blood test reveals a deficiency, and your doc recommends a supplement, would also be in a different category.)
“When I talk to my patients about supplements, I’m usually expressing concern that they are wasting their money, because for the average adult, supplements, vitamins, minerals, and multivitamins are probably only making expensive urine,” editorial co-author Jeffrey Linder, M.D., chief of general internal medicine in the department of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine told Bicycling.
“As we described in our editorial, a main concern I have is that supplements and multivitamins are a distraction from more proven, effective ways of maintaining health and athletic performance, which includes good nutrition, good sleep, and plenty of exercise,” he said.
Although everyone is looking for a “magic pill” that will maintain and improve health, that’s not in a supplements aisle, he added: “The magic pill is exercise.”
The USPSTF report and editorial didn’t include athletic performance when evaluating supplements, but as an avid runner and cyclist himself, Linder said there are two with some evidence behind them: caffeine and beta-alanine. With the latter, there can be a boost in endurance and power, but he said you need to take it in the right amount, frequency, and duration. Even then, the difference is likely modest.
“My own bottom line is that beyond caffeine—with coffee stops or a gel on hard rides longer than 60 miles—I don’t take anything because it’s not worth the hassle or expense, and the gains are marginal,” he said.
Eating a well-balanced diet offers a much better effect in terms of athletic performance, he added, and getting enough sleep is another essential booster. Plus, the effects of these efforts layer on top of each other. For instance, when you eat better and have quality sleep, you tend to have more energy for exercise, which then helps your sleep and eating habits.
“This circles back to the overall bottom line: Supplements aren’t likely to help, cost money, and might have adverse effects,” said Linder. “For disease prevention, health, and athletic performance, people are going to get the most benefit from eating a healthful diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.”
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