Vitamin supplements: Performance enhancers or snake oil?

We are constantly bombarded by claims about nutritional supplements at the grocery store, on TV and on internet sites, to name a few places. Supplements can cure the common cold, give you energy and keep you safe from disease ... or can they?

Its difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially when the very authorities we look to for help seem to be in limbo themselves.

A large percentage of Americans routinely take a vitamin or mineral supplement. According to industry sources, consumers spent an estimated $14.7 billion on dietary supplements in 1999. But who really needs supplements?

For almost every bit of information supporting supplements, a contradictory finding exists. Doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, and researchers have debated it and, in many cases, agreed to disagree, leaving the consumer feeling as if they must fend for themselves.

In determining your needs, what is important is to first be able to recognize the difference between a vitamin and a vitamin supplement.

What is a vitamin?

Vitamins and minerals are organic food substances found naturally in plants and animals. They play an important role in all functions of the body. They help regulate metabolism, help convert fat and carbohydrates into energy and assist in forming and maintaining tissue and bone matter. They are essential to our health and general well being.

Your body needs vitamins and minerals to function properly, and it strives to maintain the correct proportion. Vitamins are essential for growth, mental alertness and resistance to infection.

What is a dietary supplement?

The definition of a dietary supplement usually refers to products made of one or more of the essential nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and protein.

Supplements are easy to identify because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that they list "dietary supplement" on the label. They come in various forms ranging from pill to liquids and powders.

Supplement safety

What most people dont realize is that there are several vitamins and minerals that can be toxic if they are present in the body above a certain level. Excess water-soluble vitamins are excreted in the urine, but many fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamins A and D, are stored and can accumulate to toxic levels. Subsequently, taking more of a supplement than is recommended does no good and may even be harmful.

Supplements are not drugs and, therefore, are not heavily regulated by the FDA. Although federal law does require that supplement manufacturers ensure the safety of their product, consumer safety is generally left to the consumer and the manufacturer of the product.

In addition, manufacturers do not have to provide information to the FDA regarding product ingredients in order to have the product on the market. Although this usually applies to herbal supplements, it can apply to vitamin and mineral supplements as well.

How do you know that the capsule labeled 100 percent vitamin C is actually what it says it is? How do you know that it doesnt contain other substances? You dont. As consumers, we must take the word of the manufacturer.

Do you need a supplement?

There is no black and white or definite yes and no answer to this question. As of 1998, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) maintained its position that the best way to assure nutrition is through the consumption of a wide variety of foods (the ADA will release its most recent position in November of 2000, just following the distribution of this publication).

The 1998 position of the ADA states, "It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that the best nutritional strategy for promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to obtain adequate nutrients from a wide variety of foods. Vitamin and mineral supplementation is appropriate when well-accepted, peer-reviewed, scientific evidence shows safety and effectiveness."

The ADA respects the interests of consumers who wish to use supplements and suggests the use of supplements not exceeding the recommended daily allowance. The American Heart Association and American Medical Association agree with the ADA on its position on vitamin and mineral supplements.

Many people take vitamin supplements for energy, yet vitamins alone will not give a person more energy. "There are all sorts of reactions that go on in food that cannot be duplicated with a pill," says Nancy Anderson, a registered dietician with Emory Heart Center. "Vitamins in pill form should be used as a supplement rather than a substitute."

Athletes are frequently under the impression that taking a vitamin supplement will improve their performance. "Athletes, and active people in general, should strive for a variety of vitamins," says Anderson. "The ideal way is through a balanced diet."

Chris Rosenbloom, the nutrition consultant for the Georgia Tech Athletic Association feels that analysis should be made on an individual basis.

"Everybody is different and every sport is different," says Rosenbloom "One size doesnt fit all."

You are what you eat

Only a portion of Americans are actually meeting their recommended daily intake of vitamins and nutrients through diet.

According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), many people need to increase their daily intake of vitamins to maintain good health. The NAS encourages consumers to get nutrients from food sources before turning to supplements.

Unfortunately, due to hectic lifestyles and various other factors, many people find themselves eating at the nearest fast food joint more often than at their kitchen table. These people could be lacking some very important nutrients.

Because of this inadequacy, many researchers and doctors support the use of vitamin and mineral supplements.

Dr. Art Ulene, commonly known as "Americas Family Doctor" for his appearances on NBCs Today Show, is one such supporter. In the 1970s, Ulene was strictly opposed to the consumption of excess vitamins. Now, Ulene considers vitamin supplements not only appropriate, but desirable for most adults.

Ulene claims that he was troubled by the lack of scientific studies that proved supplements were safe and effective. "I havent changed," said Ulene. "The scientific evidence has. Almost weekly we see results of new studies proving the benefits of vitamins and minerals."

Others, like Dr. Allan Spreen, MD, agree with Ulenes position. Spreen claims the standards set by the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) do not allow for enhanced or optimal nutritional states.

The RDA has been the subject of criticism for many reasons. Not just because they are considered outdated (created in 1941) but also because they are based on an amount needed to avoid deficiency. They are also very general and do not take into account any special cases. Many people want more than just to avoid deficiency athletes, for example, want to have their bodies at peak performance level.

When vitamin supplements are necessary

There are certain circumstances in which the use of vitamin or mineral supplements are considered necessary by all authorities. Below is a general list of cases that may require supplementation of some form:

  • Women who are pregnant or who are at the child-bearing stage
  • Women with heavy menstrual flows
  • Breast-fed infants, while they are exclusively breast fed
  • Strict vegetarians
  • Breast-fed infants or children of strict vegetarians
  • People with food allergies, food intolerances or poor appetites
  • Seniors who are housebound
  • People taking certain medicines, such as laxatives or antibiotics
  • People recovering from surgery
  • Chronically ill individuals
  • Heavy drinkers and smokers
  • Children with finicky eating habits

    Still feel a little confused? We all are. With scientific discoveries being made every hour, it can be overwhelming to keep up with the latest information.

    Often, what was thought to be true two years ago, is not so anymore. Keep this factor in mind when you make the decision to supplement your diet with anything. The best approach is to consult a registered dietician, nutritionist or even your family physician to give you some insight on what you and your family need.

    No two people are exactly alike and, therefore, supplement necessity should be based on an individual assessment.

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