COLLEGE STATION — Those who think they are getting all the vitamins and nutrients needed each day through supplements instead of food, should think again.
“Vitamins in the form of pills and liquid or powdered supplements are no substitute for the real thing,” according Dr. Mary Kinney Bielamowicz, registered dietitian and nutrition specialist with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. “Not only are these supplements missing important fiber provided by food, they are a big economic wastes.”
Information from the American Dietitian Association show that 3,400 different vitamin and mineral products are available to consumers. About $4 billion is spent annually on supplemental vitamin and mineral purchases.
“Dietary supplementation for the person who is healthy, has food available and is active is not necessary,” Bielamowicz said. “Some people may require supplements, but it is not recommended for the general population. Eating a wide variety of foods is the best way to obtain essential nutrients.”
However, supplements may benefit some such as the elderly who suffer from certain types of dementia or memory loss and forget to eat, she said. Doctors also may recommend liquid supplements in between meals for those who are underweight.
“In these cases, supplements provide carbohydrates, proteins and fats,” Bielamowicz said. “They give this group of people calories and fluid along with nutrients.”
The American Dietetics Association recognizes the interest of supplement users in promoting good health, but also cautions against vitamin and mineral supplementation as a complete nutrition strategy.
ADA acknowledges supplementation may be one way to help some Americans stay healthy and avoid certain illnesses, but says additional scientific research on the safety and effectiveness of many vitamin and mineral supplements is still required.
There have been cases in the past of mothers who were overzealous with providing vitamin supplementation to their children, Bielamowicz said. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat soluble and are stored readily in fat tissue in the body. If you take too much of these you can get toxic levels. Large doses of vitamin A have resulted in symptoms that mimic a brain tumor.”
However, recent research has indicated that supplements are good for specific populations; folic acid aids women of childbearing age and calcium helps prevent osteoporosis, she said.
If consumers are worried about getting enough antioxidants, which research shows may aid in the prevention of certain types of cancer, they should eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, she said.
Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, deep orange vegetables and green leafy vegetables are rich in vitamin C and beta carotene. Also, certain foods such as garlic and onion contain fiber and sulfur compounds that are missing from supplements.
“To help promote a healthful lifestyle, the best way to obtain the nutrients needed daily is by following the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid,” Bielamowicz said. “Try to eat at least three or more servings of vegetables, two or more servings of fruit, six servings from the breads and cereal group and larger amounts of carbohydrate and complete carbohydrates each day. Also, eat lower amounts of fats, concentrated sweets and reduce alcohol.
“The bottom line is that healthy consumers should not waste their money on excessive amounts of vitamins and supplements,” Bielamowicz said. “Instead, they should enjoy their food by eating a well balanced meal, choosing from each of the food groups.”
For more information on eating right by following the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, Bielamowicz recommends contacting the local family and consumer sciences county agent with the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.