More than half of U.S. adults take dietary supplements. I don’t, but some of my family members do. But does popping all of these vitamins, minerals, and other substances really lead to a longer, healthier life? A new nationwide study suggests it doesn’t.
Based on an analysis of survey data gathered from more than 27,000 people over a six-year period, the NIH-funded study found that individuals who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to food consumption.
The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess. For instance, people who took more than 1,000 milligrams of supplemental calcium per day were more likely to die of cancer than those who didn’t.
The researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, were intrigued that so many people take dietary supplements, despite questions about their health benefits. While the overall evidence had suggested no benefits or harms, results of a limited number of studies had suggested that high doses of certain supplements could be harmful in some cases.
To take a broader look, Zhang’s team took advantage of survey data from tens of thousands of U.S. adults, age 20 or older, who had participated in six annual cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010. NHANES participants were asked whether they’d used any dietary supplements in the previous 30 days. Those who answered yes were then asked to provide further details on the specific product(s) and how long and often they’d taken them.
Just over half of participants reported use of dietary supplements in the previous 30 days. Nearly 40 percent reported use of multivitamins containing three or more vitamins.
Nutrient intake from foods was also assessed. Each year, the study’s participants were asked to recall what they’d eaten over the last 24 hours. The researchers then used that information to calculate participants’ nutrient intake from food. Those calculations indicated that more than half of the study’s participants had inadequate intake of vitamins D, E, and K, as well as choline and potassium.
Over the course of the study, more than 3,600 of the study’s participants died. Those deaths included 945 attributed to cardiovascular disease and 805 attributed to cancer. The next step was to look for any association between the nutrient intake and the mortality data.
The researchers found the use of dietary supplements had no influence on mortality. People with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were less likely to die. However, that relationship only held for nutrient intake from food consumption.
People who reported taking more than 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day were more likely to die of cancer. There was also evidence that people who took supplemental vitamin D at a dose exceeding 10 micrograms (400 IU) per day without a vitamin D deficiency were more likely to die from cancer.
It’s worth noting that the researchers did initially see an association between the use of dietary supplements and a lower risk of death due to all causes. However, those associations vanished when they accounted for other potentially confounding factors.
For example, study participants who reported taking dietary supplements generally had a higher level of education and income. They also tended to enjoy a healthier lifestyle. They ate more nutritious food, were less likely to smoke or drink alcohol, and exercised more. So, it appears that people who take dietary supplements are likely to live a longer and healthier life for reasons that are unrelated to their supplement use.
While the study has some limitations, including the difficulty in distinguishing association from causation, and a reliance on self-reported data, its findings suggest that the regular use of dietary supplements should not be recommended for the general U.S. population. Of course, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that certain subgroups of people, including perhaps those following certain special diets or with known nutritional deficiencies, may benefit.
These findings serve up a reminder that dietary supplements are no substitute for other evidence-based approaches to health maintenance and eating nutritious food. Right now, the best way to live a long and healthy life is to follow the good advice offered by the rigorous and highly objective reviews provided by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Those tend to align with what I hope your parents offered: eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fruits, veggies, and healthy sources of calcium and protein. Don’t smoke. Use alcohol in moderation. Avoid recreational drugs. Get plenty of exercise.