I don't know if it's because the beginning of the year is all about resolutions and health goals, or because I've been watching fitness videos on YouTube, but I have been inundated with ads for fancy designer vitamin supplements lately.
Have you seen these ads on your IG or Facebook feed?
Some of these vitamin supplements cost a moderately reasonable $30 a month and some cost an astronomical $200 just to tell you what vitamins they think you need, and then sell them to you in a monthly subscription.
So it inspired me... let's talk about vitamin supplements today, because I'm guessing you either currently take one (or more) or have taken them in the past, as part of your self care routine.
Before we get started -Yes, I am a supplement skeptic. But despite this, I still bought vitamins in 2020 and almost bought some earlier this year because I am a human who falls for advertising and promises for energy, reduced anxiety and more unrealistic fixes. Read the end of this article for my honest journey to the brink of purchasing a $39/month vitamin subscription earlier this year.
HERE ARE SIX THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT VITAMIN (AND HERBAL) SUPPLEMENTS:
First: Its important to understand this:
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have the authority to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. This means that your supplements are not verified, tested, monitored or qualified for safe consumption by our government.
|In theory, you could dehydrate broccoli, pulverize it into a powder, put it in a gel capsule and sell it as a daily energy-boosting supplement. No FDA-approval or permits required. Does it work? Who knows. People always say eat more green foods, so it could possibly give you more energy.|
If you think that example sounds a little dubious, its not far from the truth. Even when a manufacturer wants to use a new substance in a supplement, all they have to do is notify the FDA. Not ask the FDA for approval or prove safety, just notify them. A courtesy heads up.
So know that our government has little enforcement into the claims and contents of the supplements you choose. Read more here.
Second: Science says a healthy diet will most likely cover your needs
- You might not want to hear this, but eating a healthy diet will most likely fulfill your nutrient needs.
|“Pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases,” says Larry Appel, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research. “Other nutrition recommendations have much stronger evidence of benefits—eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar you eat.”|
Read the full John Hopkins article here.
- When it comes to whole foods, this rings true: The sum is greater than its parts. According to a Huffpost article:
|"When you take a supplement, you're basically taking a purified form of an element, such as iron, vitamin D, or calcium. When you eat an apple or an onion, however, you're also ingesting thousands of phytochemicals (antioxidants are a form of phytochemical). Phytochemicals are bioactive non-nutrient plant compounds. It's estimated that more than 5,000 have been identified, but a large percentage still remain unknown to us (4). More and more evidence is surfacing in support of their effect on reducing cancer."|
Third: Science says supplements may cause harm or decrease lifespan
This is true in a few different ways.
- Remember the lack of federal oversight above? Well, here's a snippet from a Harvard Medical article discussing the realities of an unregulated market:
|"The FDA has found more than 500 supplements adulterated with pharmaceuticals or closely related compounds. The offenders include stimulants, bodybuilding steroids, antidepressants, weight-loss medications, and supplements aimed at treating erectile dysfunction. All can cause unwanted side effects and may be especially risky when taken with heart drugs or other prescription medications."|
- The Iowa Women's Study found a correlation between higher mortality (death rates) and using dietary vitamin and mineral supplements. This study followed 38,772 women from 1986 - 2008. Those who reported using a multivitamin or supplements had a higher rate of death than those who did not.
- High doses of some vitamins can cause liver damage, kidney damage, hair loss and much more. Read this article about 15 different supplements to just avoid altogether.
- This study found no health benefit to using supplements.
- This article explains how too many antioxidants can be a bad thing according to multiple research studies. We have been trained to believe that antioxidants are something to load up on, to beat up those terrible free radicals in our system. But it turns out that, like many things, our bodies need a balance of both in our system and overdoing it on antioxidants can actually cause some of the damage we seek to prevent.
Fourth: Science says talk to your doctor about your individual needs
There could be an individual vitamin or nutrient that you're in need of supplementing, depending on who you are and what your unique health circumstance is. But let your doctor help you figure that out. Don't give a vitamin company $200 and a sample of your blood.
Fifth: Remember who benefits ($$) from your desire to achieve maximum wellness
It is part of the human condition to seek out the fountain of youth and vitamin supplements are the modern version - promising anti-aging, metabolism boosting, energy heightening solutions in tiny (or big) pill form. They are today's proverbial apple - promising to keep the doctor away by super charging our immune systems, reducing anxiety, strengthening our hearts or reducing inflammation. All with the minimal effort of swallowing a pill each day.
The vitamin supplement industry is a $32 billion industry because they have tapped into this human drive for optimal being and wow, is it a money maker! They have the means and the incentive to lobby our government for a 'wild wild west' lack of accountability in their regulations so that you hear the messages they want you to hear. Which leads us to...
Sixth: You will see far more vitamin ads than ads for scientific research. Remember who has the marketing $$ and do your research.
Don't be lulled into a false sense of security just because you see more happy, success story ads from vitamin companies than you do for scientific studies about their real efficacy.
That multi-billion dollar industry has far more marketing dollars and ad agencies working for them than the University of Wherever's science department. Real, quality research often requires you to seek it out, it probably won't come looking for you.
Do you due diligence before deciding to put anything in your body to ensure that real, quality research has been done on it. Not anecdotal evidence, or 'ancient remedies' or company scientists paid to agree with the company's claims. Look for 3rd party, unbiased research.
Despite Knowing All This...
Now that I've told you these six important things to know, let me tell you how I, despite knowing these things for some time, still almost fell for a spendy designer vitamin earlier this year.
Three or four years ago, I read the book Vitamania, which covers the entire history of vitamins from discovery in our food, their necessity in our diets and the entire industry that arose out of our desire to get more of them. (it's an interesting book, read it!) Note: There is also a movie by this same name about the vitamin supplement industry, but I have not watched it (yet) and I don't think it is related to the book I read.
So, I've been a skeptic about the efficacy and safety of vitamin supplements since then. But I am also human and advertising works on me. Its embarrassing to admit, but despite my beliefs that are rooted in real scientific studies, I repeatedly find myself tempted by the claims that live within the vitamin aisle at my local rite aid, or within my IG feed's sexy ads. That's the power of appealing to the universal desire for the 'fountain of youth' as I mentioned in our fifth point above:
It's tempting to think that it may really be out there.
I tried 3 different vitamin supplements in 2020 with the hopeful thought that maybe they will do something for me this time (I ended up throwing them in the trash). And when I saw the ads on IG for Daily Gem just a couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued enough to almost purchase them.
And it was actually my desire to want validation for purchasing Daily Gem that made me re-research this industry. Daily Gem is a 'multivitamin' that's not a vitamin - it's a cube of real "super" foods and algae powders that you eat every day. It sounded like something that could work because it is real foods (in reality, it now seems like a bite sized protein bar with a healthy profit margin).
I wanted to buy this vitamin so bad that I did multiple research sessions trying to find a review or a study that would convince me to take the $39/month plunge.
All I found were a handful of bloggers who tried & reviewed the product with ambiguous results. No scientific studies comparing it's efficacy against other supplements, or comparing it's efficacy against a placebo. Just sponsored reviews and their website's "Research Library" that defines each ingredient for you, but doesn't discuss the product as a whole or its efficacy.
Clearly, I wasn't finding what I needed and I decided it wasn't for me. But look at that effort I went into trying to convince myself that it was a worthy purchase.
If you currently take a vitamin supplement, or still find yourself enamored at the idea that these supplements can really enrich your wellbeing, please know that I get you.
All I'm asking is that you take care in researching the supplements you want to take, look for unbiased efficacy and safety studies and ideally, talk to your doctor. That's self care.