Go to any convenience store and you’ll find rows upon rows of dietary supplements.
That’s because vitamin and mineral use has skyrocketed over the past decade as the nation has experienced a massive health and wellness boom.
More than 75 percent of adults in the United States currently take health supplements, according to a survey from the Council of Responsible Nutrition (CRN). It found 87 percent trust the safety, quality, and effectiveness of dietary supplements.
However, up until recently, researchers have been unsure as to what kind of health benefits most dietary supplements provide, if any.
Now, new research suggests that nutrients from supplements do little to lower your risk for death.
On the other hand, nutrients sourced from foods appear to significantly reduce your risk for death, according to the study, which was published in Annals of Internal Medicine.
“The main takeaways of this and similar studies are that healthy, whole foods should always be the first place we turn to when we want to obtain a balanced diet with optimal nutrient levels,” Suzanne Dixon, a registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida, told Healthline.
“This doesn’t mean supplements are always harmful, but it does suggest people should carefully consider whether they need dietary supplements before adding them into their daily routine,” she said.
To measure the benefits and harms of dietary supplements, researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University studied the diets of more than 27,000 U.S. adults aged 20 and older.
The dietary data was pulled from six two-year cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which calculated participants’ daily supplement doses along with their dietary intake of nutrients from foods.
The research team then looked at death outcomes for each participant through the National Death Index.
The team found that adequate intakes of vitamin K and magnesium from food sources, not supplements, were associated with a lower risk of death.
They also discovered those with higher intakes of vitamin K, magnesium, and zinc — again, from nutrients in foods, not supplements — had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, excess calcium intake was associated with a higher risk of death from cancer in participants who took supplemental doses of at least 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day. There was no association between cancer and calcium intake from foods.
“Our results support the idea that, while supplement use contributes to an increased level of total nutrient intake, there are beneficial associations with nutrients from foods that aren’t seen with supplements,” Dr. Fang Fang Zhang, an associate professor at Friedman School and the senior and corresponding author on the study, said in a statement.
“This study also confirms the importance of identifying the nutrient source when evaluating mortality outcomes,” she said.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a very limited role in supplement regulation.
Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), the FDA isn’t authorized to review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they go to market.
Rather, the FDA’s role in monitoring supplements is more reactionary, only pulling a supplement from shelves or curtailing use of it once a significant number of people report adverse side effects from the product, says Dixon.
“In other words, the burden of proof that a supplement may cause harm lies with the consumer, not the FDA,” Dixon noted.
Furthermore, DSHEA allows certain language on supplement packaging labels that many consumers find confusing, such as “supports immune health” or “works better than a prescription drug.” According to the FDA, if a claim seems too good to be true, it probably is.
“All of this has led to an environment in which many people place more faith in dietary supplement safety and efficacy than is warranted by available research evidence,” Dixon said.
In general, our diets should be our main source for vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, health experts believe.
“Dietary supplements should be reserved for special circumstances to address measurable deficiencies within the body and not a source for mega-dosing in an attempt to somehow create health,” he said.
Our bodies are designed to absorb and use nutrients as they naturally occur in foods, says Dixon. When we take in high levels of nutrients from dietary supplements, our vitamins and minerals start to compete for absorption, which can eventually lead to dangerous nutrient imbalances.
Rather than load up on dietary supplements, most health experts recommend following a healthy, plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains.
If you’re considering taking a supplement, be sure to first consult your doctor. They can determine if the supplement would be safe and helpful for you.
A new study from Tufts University found that nutrients from food, not supplements, are linked to a lower risk of death.
In fact, excess calcium intake from supplements increased people’s risk of death from cancer. Health experts agree that while not all supplements are harmful, a well-balanced, healthy diet is the best way to get your nutrients.