Before you grab that handful of vitamins and supplements you gulp down every day, consider that there's growing evidence the regimen of pills will not improve your health. And it might even do you harm.
Surveys show more than half of Americans take at least one supplement every day.
"Multi-vitamins in particular have been pushed in our culture as something that's going to really enhance health when in fact, what we need to do is just eat foods that contain those nutrients," said Liz Kirk, a registered dietician on the faculty at Bastyr University and the University of Washington.
In this fast-food society, Kirk said it might seem reasonable that we need vitamin supplements every day.
"But what's more reasonable is to do what's been promoted by numerous organizations, including the Heart Association, Diabetes Association and the new 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans which says we should eat more fruits and vegetables; we should eat more whole grains; we should eat more lean protein products, including beans, including lean meats; we should eat dairy products," said Kirk.
But taking a pill is easy. It's estimated that vitamin and supplement sales in the U.S. top 20 billion dollars a year.
Dr. Alan Kristal, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, said 25 years of research shows that even popular supplements such as vitamin E, folic acid and beta-carotene might even increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
"I think what's going on is that we are proving to ourselves that human nutrition works this way: Too little of micro-nutrients is not good, too much of a micro-nutrient is not good," said Kristal.
Kirk thinks people consider supplements a panacea, ensuring nutritional health. "You can't get that assurance just by taking a pill."
Kirk said to look at your dinner plate.
"If it looks like it's all kind of brown and processed, then that's not a good starting point for making sure that you're getting adequate nutrients in your diet. You want it to be nice and colorful with a variety of foods, a balanced approach and a moderate approach."
Another concern about vitamins and supplements is who takes them. Research in Seattle and elsewhere shows that the people using supplements generally have the best diets and need them the least. Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of nutritional sciences at the U-W, has a question for you if you're throwing down vitamins every morning.
"Why are you doing that instead of having ready to eat cereal with milk. Cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals and milk is fortified with vitamin D and so why not have that instead," he urged.
Kristal says evidence is mounting from scientific studies that taking large amounts of micro-nutrients is harmful. This is an extremely well merchandised product by the manufacturers of these supplements and I think really people have no business taking them."
Defenders of dietary supplements claim researchers are picking and choosing from studies that make supplements, such as vitamin E, look bad. They also claim that pharmaceutical companies back studies that undermine the value of dietary supplements because they compete with prescription drugs.