That is the question.
A report from 2006 by NIH (National Institute of Health) recently came to my attention. This report (Ref below) discusses the benefits (or lack thereof) of vitamins and supplements. Not surprisingly, they found little evidence (or rather, none) that they do us any good. The conclusions were (as I understand them):
- More than half of the population use multivitamin supplements
- The supplement users tend to be people that eat a healthy diet, making it difficult to distinguish between any benefits from the supplements as compared to nutrition derived from the diet itself
- Fortification of foods further confuses the matter as it makes it impossible to evaluate the actual amount of nutrients people consume
- They also found no studies that pointed towards a positive effect for treating chronic conditions, except for certain subgroups such as calcium and vitamin D for bone density
They conclude with
Finally, the present evidence is insufficient to recommend either for or against the use of MVMs (multivitamins) by the American public to prevent chronic disease
And, of course, the recommendation is that more studies are required. I have never seen a study that didn’t include this recommendation. More work for the researchers!
What the study did not address is whether the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) for vitamins and minerals are optimal numbers. Personally, I very much doubt they are. They all seem to be based on a study treating a deficiency and the number that was required to restore the levels might not necessarily be the what is required for a person that has another composition of her diet.
So what does all this tell me? First, I’m not too worried about my inconsistency in taking supplements any more. I tend to jump on a bandwagon for a certain supplement, and then drop others. There are just so many pills I can take in a day!
I’m not even consistent with calcium. But then I read a study that taking calcium religiously for 3 years resulted in 1% (ONE percent) less loss of bone density as compared to not taking it. The study also concluded that you were better off getting the calcium from food. I have no trouble remembering to eat cheese!
The one supplement I will not drop for now is Vitamin D. I think there is enough evidence that most people can benefit from it. But I will not worry if I miss a dose a day or two as the vitamin is stored in the body and I can hopefully compensate by a higher dose the next day. Fish oil for Omega 3 and cod liver oil for Vitamin A also makes it into my mouth now and then.
Note. I do not recommend anybody to stop taking any supplements. I just present my personal opinion and I realize that what I think is good for me will not be valid for all people. I am not an expert and I don’t pretend to be. There are certainly groups that require supplementation for various reasons such as illnesses or malabsorption issues.
[Ref: National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science conference statement: multivitamin/mineral supplements and chronic disease prevention. Ann Intern Med. 2006;145:000-000. Full report in pdf: NIH]