The Mayo Clinic Diet blog

Supplement use increases, but a healthy diet is the key

By Donald Hensrud, M.D. April 29, 2011

A recent study reported that dietary supplement use has increased in the United States, with more than half of all adults taking dietary supplements.

The most common dietary supplement you might take is a multivitamin. Many believe it may be an "insurance policy" to make sure you're getting all necessary nutrients. But there isn't much evidence a multivitamin will improve your health, and it won't make up for a bad diet.

A few dietary supplements have beneficial effects. Particularly for women, calcium and vitamin D can help prevent osteoporosis and folic acid will decrease the risk of birth defects in babies. The recent study reported that calcium and vitamin D use has increased among women over age 60. Unfortunately, use of supplements containing folic acid has not increased among young women, and use among minorities remains the lowest.

Some dietary supplements have negative effects. Smokers and former smokers who take beta carotene supplements have an increased risk of lung cancer. Even vitamin E, which we thought was good for the heart, has not only showed little benefit, but it may even increase the risk of heart disease such as congestive heart failure (the amount of these nutrients in a multivitamin is OK).

If you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency, such as iron deficiency, then supplementation is certainly indicated. In that case, your health care provider should be involved.

Regarding weight loss, there is little evidence that any over-the-counter supplement can help, except for orlistat. It's also available by prescription. Yet, people spend billions on dietary supplements for health and for weight loss.

Most dietary supplements have little impact on health. But a healthy diet can decrease the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, many types of cancers, diabetes, obesity, and the list goes on. It may seem easier to take a pill, but the right dietary pattern can not only help you lose weight, but also improve your health in so many different ways. And it tastes a whole lot better than a pill!

Do you take supplements? Please share your story.

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April 29, 2011