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Do Vitamin Supplements Actually Work? Panel Suggests Answer Unclear

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Over half of all Americans (53 percent) take some kind of daily herbal supplement or vitamin, according to a 2011 study conducted by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. This marks a steady rise in the popularity of supplements during the last twenty years, as a previous study conducted by the CDC based on data collected between 1988 and 1994 found that only 40 percent of Americans took dietary supplements.

Considering their popularity, you’d think it obvious that the road to better health would include taking a few dietary supplements daily. However, according to a U.S. government appointed panel of influential health experts, the medical community still remains uncertain whether taking supplements actually benefits an individual’s health.

In fact, according to guidelines laid out by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, some daily supplements, such as vitamin E and beta carotene, may actually cause more harm to an individual’s health than good. In general, the Task Force recommended that individuals focus more on maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet rather than relying on supplements for better health.

The results of the Task Force’s findings were published in the November online edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Uncertain Benefits

When announcing their conclusions regarding the benefits of supplements, the Task Force cited a lack of evidence to support widely held beliefs that taking multivitamins or paired nutrients can actually lower an individual’s risk of chronic diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. However, in the cases of vitamin E and beta carotene, the Task Force did find sufficient evidence to report that taking either supplement will not reduce the risk of developing any disease.

The panel concluded that, based on available evidence, it could not recommend individuals take certain minerals and vitamins individually, together, or in a multivitamin as a means of lowering the risk of either cancer or cardiovascular disease. The panel did conclude that enough evidence exists to prove conclusively that taking daily vitamin E supplements offers no protection against disease, and that taking beta carotene could actually endanger an individual’s health, as it appears to increase the risk of developing lung cancer in those already at risk of the disease.

The Task Force opined that, for many, taking additional vitamins and minerals as a means of bolstering their health could provide a false sense of security, considering the lack of overall evidence supporting the healthy benefits of supplements. Furthermore, a number of recent studies have questioned whether supplements offer the same benefits when taken individually.

A 2012 study, for example, found the fish oil supplements offered none of the heart healthy benefits individual’s received from actually eating fish. While the reason behind this discrepancy remains unclear, researchers suspect the body breaks down omega-3 fatty acids more efficiently when digesting fish then when taken separately. As more clinical trials study the effects of supplements, researchers may find that isolating certain vitamins or minerals from natural food sources may not offer the same kind of healthy benefits.

Healthy Lifestyle the Key

Instead of relying on supplements, the Task Force recommended that health care professionals recommend patients make lifestyle adjustments, including eating a balanced diet rich in nutrients, receiving at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, and maintaining their oral health. In recent years, a number of studies have discovered strong links between each of these lifestyle decisions when it comes to improving an individual’s overall health. Considering the lack of such findings regarding supplements, many American’s may be better off saving their money buying healthier foods instead.

John Nickelbottom is a freelance health writer.

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