Nutritional supplements are not drugs

supplementsSix months ago, a group of MDs wrote that we all should “Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements”.  Their point: for ‘well nourished’ adults, there’s ‘no clear benefit’ to taking supplements.  The problem with this conclusion is ‘well nourished adults’.  Consumers talk a good talk about eating nothing but 100% healthy food, but somehow we still have an obesity epidemic, with rising rates of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and metabolic syndrome.  Grocery stores are loaded with manufactured junk food and soft drinks that someone is obviously buying.  So sure, well-nourished adults who eat a perfect balanced diet probably don’t need supplements.  That’s like 3 people.  What about the rest of us?

The Linus Pauling Institute published a rebuttal to those doctors, noting that diet surveys show few Americans eat a balanced diet, and that intake of numerous nutrients are below recommended levels.  Conclusion: sufficient intake of nutrients is important, and supplements can help close gaps in intake due to unbalanced diets.

Good reasoning.  But clearly plenty of people take supplements for reasons that have more to do with wishful thinking than nutritional facts.  Here are five common misconceptions about nutritional supplements:

1. If a little is good, more is better.

Most people understand that nutrients are essential for health.  They then leap to the conclusion that more nutrients will result in more health.  Wrong.  ‘More’ than you need is never better and is sometimes dangerous.  Minerals and fat soluble vitamins can be especially problematic because they get stored in body tissues and can create havoc at high levels.  For example, excess vitamin A can cause dangerous medical problems.  Excess zinc can interfere with copper absorption.  Excess folic acid can mask a B12 deficiency.

What about vitamin C and B vitamins?  Those aren’t stored; excess is quickly excreted.  Maybe you can dose yourself with more (much more) than the recommended daily intake without noticeable side effects, but what’s the point?  More doesn’t improve your health.

2. Nutrients are happy natural substances: all benefits, no side effects.

Wrong.  See above.  But for some people, taking natural sounding pills makes them feel like they’re doing something positive, even if there are no apparent benefits.

3. Nutrients come from supplement pills

Surprise!  Food has nutrients.  In fact, until very recently in human history, food was the only source of nutrients.  There were no supplements in 1900, 1600 or in the Paleo era.  Most of the food you eat has at least some nutrients.  The less processed the more nutrients.   Certain foods (pure sugar, corn starch, soft drinks, candies) have almost no nutrients besides calories.

Which brings up an important point: vitamin and mineral supplements ideally will supplement your nutrient intake, not replace it.  Why do multiple vitamins all contain 100% (or more) of many of the nutrients?  Why not a supplement with 1/3rd of your nutrient needs.  That would be a true supplement, not a replacement.  I suspect it’s more about marketing.  When consumers look at the nutrient list, all those 100%’s look good.

4. Supplements cause weight loss or boost energy

This is akin to believing supplements cure disease.  Nutrients don’t cause weight loss or boost energy.  Yes, they’re part of the metabolic systems that process energy, but taking more of them won’t rev up those systems.

5. Supplements cure diseases

This has to be the biggest area of misunderstanding about supplements.  Nutrients are not drugs.  Yet many people, including doctors seem to think nutrients can be used like drugs to fix diseases, from cancer to heart disease to autism to the common cold.  Even Linus Pauling abandoned that idea.

Supplements do not cure diseases.  In fact, supplement manufacturers are prohibited from labeling supplements in any way that implies a cure for disease.  But that doesn’t stop them from trying.  They know consumers believe nutrients can work like miracle drugs.  One ploy is the use of weasel words to imply health benefits: calcium can “support bone health”.  Vitamin C can “support immune function”.  And so on.  Another way to get around labeling rules is to plant articles or comments in publications or websites linking some nutrient to a disease.  You read the seemingly helpful article or comment that suggests a certain supplement might help you fight cancer, and you buy it.  No actual labeling was involved.  It’s more like a whisper campaign.

Which brings up a very specific issue: autism.  The world of self-help autism ‘cures’ is full of advice about nutritional interventions.  Sadly, parents of these children are very vulnerable to these suggestions.  Supplement marketers are well aware of this, and apparently troll autism support websites for marketing concepts.   The label for one autism-targeted supplement claims the product has “all the nutrients a child with autism needs in order to live life fully….provides them a fighting chance to live normally..”

Sounds great.  So positive.  The problem is, there’s no evidence that this particular supplement will have any effect on autism symptoms.  But, the company isn’t making any obvious disease cure claims, so the wishful thinking consumer is free to interpret that statement anyway they want.

Take Away Message:

If you’re going to buy supplements, do it for the right reason — to supplement your nutrient intake from food.  Not replace food.  Not cure diseases.  Above all, get savvy about sneaky marketing gimmicks that make nutrients look like natural drugs.

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