Did you know that one in four Americans over 50 is taking a supplement for brain health? Or that half of all American adults—including 70 percent of those age 65 and older—take a multivitamin or vitamin/mineral supplement regularly? For baby boomers and older adults, many consider these products to be a sort of nutritional insurance policy, making up for the inadequacies of people’s regular diets.
An expensive habit
In 2020, Americans spent $35 billion on vitamins, minerals, botanicals, and various other substances. That’s more than ten times the amount we spend on Alzheimer’s disease research. It’s just a lot of money, and much of it is being flushed down the toilet, literally. (We do not store water-soluble vitamins, such as B vitamins and vitamin C. So when you eat more than we can use, you’re flushing your money down the potty.)
But the money is not well spent
In an editorial in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine titled “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” Johns Hopkins researchers reviewed evidence about supplements, including three recent studies:
- An analysis of research involving 450,000 people, which found that multivitamins did not reduce risk for heart disease or cancer.
- A study that tracked the mental functioning and multivitamin use of 5,947 men for 12 years found that multivitamins did not reduce risk for mental declines such as memory loss or slowed-down thinking.
- A study of 1,708 heart attack survivors who took a high-dose multivitamin or placebo for up to 55 months. Rates of later heart attacks, heart surgeries and deaths were similar in the two groups.
The researchers concluded that multivitamins don’t reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline (such as memory loss and slowed-down thinking), or early death. They also noted that in prior studies, vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements appear to be harmful, especially at high doses.
A better course of action
Clearly, these pills are not a panacea for nutrition-related problems, nor are they a preventative measure for chronic diseases. Your money is better spent on other nutritional recommendations for which there is strong evidence to support health: maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and consuming a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and reducing saturated and trans fats, sodium, and sugar.
What to watch for when you’re tempted to purchase a nutritional supplement:
- The claims are not backed by research. Most supplements will not have published clinical studies supporting the alleged benefits*. Here are three places to search for benefits of certain types of supplements:
2. Insufficient return policy. You certainly want to be able to easily return supplements that aren’t working for you, with a full refund.
3. The popularity of the product depends on Amazon reviews or celebrity endorsements. Many times people are paid to write these, falsely boosting ratings.
In summary, vitamin pills and other supplements can’t compensate for a poor diet, sedentary behavior, and other poor lifestyle habits.