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The Myth of Micronutrients: Should You Throwaway Your Vitamins?

wooden blocks representing cardiovascular health falling like dominoes because of vitamins and minerals

More than one third of all Americans take dietary supplements (Vitamins). In 2014, dietary supplements recorded a total of $36.7 billion sales. However, according to a recent study published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, popular supplements such as multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C provide no consistent benefit for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, heart attack, premature death or stroke.

The study’s focus is on vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 (niacin), B6, B9 (folic acid), C, D and E. In Addition, beta carotene, calcium, selenium, magnesium, zinc, and iron.

The craze over micronutrients

Americans have been taking vitamins and dietary supplements since these products first became available in the market in the 1940s. About two-thirds of the population are taking some form of vitamins and dietary supplements.

In a 2017 statistical report, the top 5 vitamins and mineral supplements were multivitamins (73%) followed by vitamin D (73%), vitamin C (32%), calcium (26%), and vitamin B/B complex (24%).

The discovery of vitamins in the early 20th century led to the cure of scurvy, rickets, beriberi, and pellagra. This sparked the obsession to achieve nutritional perfection by just popping a pill. From the treatment of diseases caused by vitamin deficiencies, the use of micronutrients has now shifted to supplemental use. Vitamin intake now augments the nutritional gap caused by unhealthy and processed food intake.

Debunking the Myth

The US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends a healthy American diet that is low in saturated and trans-fat, low in red meat, but high in fruit and vegetables. Essentially, eating a healthy and balanced diet will provide all the nutrients you need.

However, taking vitamins and dietary supplements might be causing our body more harm than good.

cartoon of a couple wondering at a doctor shaking his head and putting a hand out in dismisssal to a cabinet full of VITAMINS near a grocery cashier and check-out counter, depicting the duty of doctors to encourage people to have a well-balanced, healthy diet instead of just popping supplements and vitamins
A recent study says that vitamins and supplements don’t really prevent cardiovascular diseases or premature death. So, are vitamins and supplements useless?

Don’t Bother with Vitamins for Preventing Pre-Mature Death

Many of these supplements are super charged with micronutrients, which could go as high as 500% to 2000% of the daily recommended value. Our bodies flush out excess amounts of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamins B and C via urine. However, we store excess fat-soluble supplements such as A, D, E, and K in fatty tissues. High doses of these fat-soluble vitamins can accumulate in our system and cause health problems. For instance, excessive levels of vitamin D in our body can cause calcium buildup in the blood, which can then lead to hypercalcemia.

Stephen P. Fortmann, MD, headed a research in 2013 funded by Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The study reviewed the evidence on the benefits and harms of vitamin and mineral supplements in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. However, limited evidence supported any benefit from vitamins and minerals for the prevention of cancer or CVDs.

The JACC study affirms this discovery.

Conclusive evidence for the benefit of any supplement across all dietary backgrounds (including deficiency and sufficiency) was not demonstrated; therefore, any benefits seen must be balanced against possible risks.

It likewise concluded that:

The data on the popular supplements (multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C) show no consistent benefit for the prevention of CVD, MI, or stroke, nor was there a benefit for all-cause mortality to support their continued use.

Should we stop taking vitamins?

Too much of anything, even with the good stuff, can be detrimental to our cardiovascular health. Moderation is always the way to go. Therefore, it is important not to go overboard on vitamins and dietary supplements. Food is the safest way to get vitamins. Particularly, meal planning is the best way to get more nutrients out of what we eat. Meal plans that suit every nutritional requirement are healthy alternatives to fast food. Furthermore, consulting a doctor who can run blood tests for micronutrient deficiencies before implementing any vitamin regimen is advisable for patients with cardiovascular health issues.

While there are many studies demystifying the effect of vitamins and dietary supplements in fighting diseases and its overall impact on our health, most people are not yet ready to say goodbye to their pills. Retail sales of vitamins and supplements in the US have steadily increased from $17.2 billion in 2000 to $35 billion in 2016. Moreover, sales of vitamin-enriched drinks have also increased. We are also seeing new vitamin-fortified products in the market. These data underscore the consumers’ inclination toward the use of vitamins and supplements.

From the get-go, this direction is not going to change soon. Hence, there is responsibility for doctors and health professionals to encourage their patients to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet instead of just popping vitamins and supplements.

Source: Journal of the American College of Cardiology

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