Essential Nutrient Supplements: Essential or Supplementary?

By Eva Martin, MD of Elm Tree Medical, Inc.

My niece loves taking her vitamins every morning... they are gummy bears after all. Who can blame her? I love my calcium chews, too. Whether you love or hate taking your daily vitamins, the question remains- are they essential for health? Or are they just icing on the cake? Although studies show vitamin and mineral intake is below the recommendations for most Americans, the effects on health are still controversial.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston has completed research showing that the majority of Americans don't get enough of all of the recommended vitamins and minerals in their diets. Some of the major nutrient inadequacies come from calcium, potassium, fiber, choline, magnesium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C. Iron intake is also too low for many growing children and reproductive-aged women (who benefit from adequate iron stores during pregnancy). 9.5% of reproductive-aged women have low iron levels. Yet another mineral that is especially important in pregnancy is iodine. Iodine is a key component of thyroid hormones and especially critical during development. Up to one third of pregnant women have some level of iodine deficiency.

So, we can conclude that Americans don't take in enough of these nutrients in their diets. But, does that lead to nutrient deficiencies? Not for most people. Only 10% of Americans have a nutrient deficiency, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One notable exception is Vitamin D. 8.1% of Americans have severe Vitamin D deficiencies.  The percent is highest for African-Americans, 31% of whom have some Vitamin D deficiency. Low vitamin D levels are associated with poor bone health including fractures and osteoporosis. Perhaps our office jobs are to blame- we make Vitamin D through sunlight exposure.

What can we do if we want to increase our nutrient intake? Most experts prefer increasing the nutritional value of our food. For instance, to get a little extra calcium, you could increase your intake of milk, kale, or sardines (really!). There is also a role for vitamin and mineral supplements. 51% of all dietary supplements are multivitamins, popular for their ease of use (and, in my case, gummy format). These supplements have been shown to increase the amount of nutrients a person takes in (obviously) and to lower the risk of nutrient deficiencies. Taking vitamins are associated with making other healthy lifestyle choices, but at this point, no study has conclusively shown that vitamins cause better health outcomes. There is only conflicting evidence that dietary supplements might ease chronic diseases. No slam dunks yet!

We want to hear from you! Do you take a daily vitamin? What vitamins/minerals do you take? Do you prescribe or recommend them to your patients? For any certain indication or specific benefit?