Mistaken Reasons that People Take Vitamin and Mineral Supplements

Posted on 20 Feb 2013 18:10

By Eric Troy

Many people take vitamin and mineral supplements, not because they have a poor diet, but as added insurance against a lack of certain nutrients. This is probably not needed at all but the attitude is better safe than sorry and a little extra won't hurt. The fact is, extra will not likely do anything but cost you money. Still, many people have more specific reasons for taking supplements, usually because of ideas they have derived from nutrition misinformation. This article explores some of these reasons.

Vitamins Give Me Energy

There is no vitamin that can give you energy just by virtue of consuming it in a supplement. Although some vitamins, such as B-vitamins, are active in energy-producing pathways, vitamins do not produce energy, but simply help the body in the process of deriving it from foods. Since the vitamins do not contain any calories, they cannot give you energy and there is no way that you will feel more energy after taking a vitamin supplement because of a direct effect of the vitamins. Such a feeling may be due to added stimulants in some vitamins, such as those marketed to bodybuilders in large packs of huge pills. Or, it could just be a placebo effect. Even if you had enough of a deficiency in one or more vitamins needed to help the body produce energy, there is no way you would feel immediately more energetic after taking the vitamins in a supplement.

Despite this, supplement marketers are playing on consumer's ignorance and promoting vitamins as energizers. This is especially true in energy drinks or energy "shots" such as 5 Hour Energy. They contain a mixture of B-vitamins and the ads claim that these vitamins contribute to the stimulant effect of the product, and help prevent the "crash" associated with ingesting sugar and caffeine. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The only things in these products that can make you feel more energized are caffeine and carbohydrates. As said about all vitamins above, B vitamins do NOT "give" you energy. They do not contain any energy to give because they do not contain any calories. Your body will not produce EXTRA energy in response to more vitamins. Your body will produce the amount of energy it would normally produce, and it will simply have the micronutrients it needs to complete these energy-producing pathways.

grocery bag full of health foods

Bag Full of Vitamins and Minerals

The only way you would actually feel different after taking B vitamins is if you had a deficiency. And it is highly unlikely that you do if you live in a developed country like the U.S. Again, any effects would not be immediately felt as a surge of energy. In fact, there is no reason to think that any vitamin/mineral supplement will ever give you instant results. It will likely take days, at least, even if a deficiency was present and it is very unlikely that you will notice change in such a way that you can even prove it was the supplement since such changes will happen relatively slowly and you will simply begin to experience a "new normal."

Vegetarians, especially vegans, may (just may) have a subclinical deficiency of vitamin B-12. If you are a vegetarian who does not consume a lot of animal products (eggs, dairy) or you are a vegan, it may make sense to supplement with B-12, but it is doubtful you will notice any distinct change in the way you feel unless your diet has been extremely restricted. It is important, however, to understand that taking certain vitamins for a supposed deficiency can mask other true deficiencies. For instance, taking vitamin B-12 may mask a folic acid deficiency, or vice versa. This is why several nutrition societies recommend that any individual recommendations to take vitamin supplements should be given by a physician or a dietician (preferably) and that people with varied diets should not normally take a multivitamin or any single vitamin supplements. If your diet is deficient, however, it is more important to improve the diet than to take supplements to compensate, a point that will be covered below.

multivitamin pills

Furthermore, it is not a good idea for a lay-person to diagnose themselves with a deficiency based on physical signs they read about on the internet. Such examinations take skill and many physical signs reflect more than one nutrient deficiency. Also, the same signs may reflect toxicity! It is also likely that a physical sign that might point to a deficiency is actually pointing to a condition that has nothing to do with nutrition. Self-diagnosing and treating a "deficiency" with a supplement could endanger the health of someone who actually needs to be treated for a non-nutrient related condition. Besides, a physical examination is only the first step in checking for deficiencies. Other assessments or laboratory tests are needed to confirm them and the physical signs simply help point to way to what should be done next, in order to confirm possible deficiencies.

Today, however, many people are unreasonably convinced that they suffer from or likely have nutrient deficiencies. This brings us to the next item.

Today's Food Doesn't Have Enough Nutrients

This is a myth, helped along by the people who wish to sell you vitamin supplements. It is possible that certain agricultural products grown in some parts of the world are deficient in a nutrient they contained in abundance in the past. Some crops in the U.S. and Canada are grown in selenium or iodine deficient soils, but we can get more than enough of these nutrients from animal foods and fortification of salt. Plus, many of our foods are imported from diverse areas. The varied amount and quality of food we eat in developed countries like the U.S. and Canada today are unequaled by past times. Although surveys do indicate some deficiencies in protein, vitamins, and minerals, these are rare and are often blown out of proportion by those who wish to further the argument for supplement use.

So, is it possible that soils in rich agricultural countries can become depleted of certain nutrients? Well, the theory goes like this: Plants take up many chemicals from the soil, not all of which they need to maintain healthy growth. Farmers add back things to the soil that the plants need, but if it doesn't affect a plant's growth, they may not bother to add it back. These things may not matter to the plant, but they are important to the humans who eat the plants. So, over time, the soil becomes depleted and fruits and vegetables are not as nutritious as they once were.

So goes the theory, but what is the evidence? Well, there have been some studies in the U.S. and England, which compared records of nutrient content of fruits and vegetables to more modern nutrient analyses. The results, by and large, were a wash. Some nutrients went down a little, and some went UP, and others remained the same. One big change, found in the British study, was an 80% reduction in average copper content. The U.S. study found less provocative results, but it was also more carefully controlled. The mixed results of these studies have been cherry-picked by supplement companies and fear-mongers and things like an 80% reduction in copper (which may be inaccurate) easily become "fruits and vegetables are 80% less nutritious." The authors of both studies do not share in these types of conclusions and make it clear that soil-depletion is not known to be a cause of any reductions, and in the case of vitamins, it is not clear that the chemical composition of the soil actually affects the availability of vitamins in a plant. As well, it is not clear that any reductions pose an actual problem. Although people still bring up depleted soils all the time, this is widely held as a myth and there's no scientific evidence suggesting these supposedly depleted soils affect the nutrient content of foods. By and large, the news is the same as always: Eat a varied diet and you will meet your nutrition needs, barring any special circumstances.

What is important to understand is the difference between a clinical deficiency and subclinical deficiency, often called marginal deficiencies. Clinical deficiencies have obvious signs. Subclinical deficiencies do not. Subclinical deficiencies happen when there is either a temporary lack of a nutrient, in which case a clinical deficiency does not develop once the nutrient is taken in again in adequate amounts. Or, it is the first stage of a clinical deficiency.

There may be abnormal functioning in the body but there are not any easily recognizable physical signs and symptoms. Many people have been led to believe that symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, insomnia, etc. should be taken as an "early warning sign" of a developing deficiency, when in fact, actual symptoms are not likely to develop until later after six to eight weeks. If there are any symptoms, they are likely to be so vague that they would not point to any particular nutrient. For instance, a marginal vitamin C deficiency may cause the same general symptoms of fatigue, lethargy, etc. as a clinical riboflavin or B6 deficiency and an early sign of vitamin C deficiency, delayed wound healing, may not appear.


Vitamin and mineral supplements should never be used to make up for an inadequate diet.

There are those, because of some health condition, who are unable to meet their needs for certain nutrients, perhaps because of gastrointestinal problems that cause a lack of absorption. These instances would be something for a doctor, hopefully together with a dietician, to work out. But are there persons who for some general reason might need a supplement? Yes. Pregnant or lactating females, or females who bleed excessively during menstruation, are an example. Another example is someone who is on a severely energy restricted diet, such as after having a gastric bypass surgery.

But lets say you think you have a deficiency and you decide to deal with it be taking a vitamin supplement. Well, there is one important fact that most people are not aware of. That is, poor nutrition can also result from excessive levels of nutrient intake. The idea that if a certain amount of a nutrient is good, more must be better, is completely erroneous. There is an optimal level of intake for all nutrients, beyond which mild to severe changes occur in functioning, and a large enough amount over the optimal level could result in toxicity. Most multivitamins contain far in excess of what is needed of any one nutrient. This is called mega-dosing. It is done because of the competition for absorption among the many nutrients.

If you do not feel well, and you suspect nutrition is the problem, the best thing to do is improve your diet, by taking in a wide variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods.

Vitamins Help Me When I Am Under Stress

The idea that you need more vitamins when you are "stressed" comes from misunderstanding that there is more than one kind of stress. A discussion of stress can be quite complex, but let's keep it simple by saying that there is physical stress (illness, hard work, injury, exercise) and there are mental/emotional stress (anxiety, fear, etc.). Physical stress certainly can increase your need for energy intake and for certain vitamins and minerals. But this is NOT what most people mean by stress. They mean mental or emotional stress. There is no reason to believe that this kind of stress increases your need for micro-nutrients.

Unfortunately, many books and other sources on the subject simply state that you need more vitamins and minerals in times of stress which is a simplistic and misleading statement. Often, periods of physical stress, such as working long hours, or being ill, will be accompanied by emotional stress. These may be periods when you do not sleep or eat well. Not only may you have a tough job situation that leaves you little time for adequate nutrition, but the mental stress you are under may decrease your appetite, or cause you to turn to large amounts of snack foods containing empty calories. Of course, during these times, better nutrition is needed. But the root of the problem is how you respond to the stressors, rather than the stressors themselves. This is one of those examples of making up for bad eating by taking supplements, and this is never a good idea. Many people do this even when things are going well! The solution is learn strategies to eat well, and hopefully get adequate rest, during such times.

variety of healthy foods including fish, meat, brocolli, milk, grain bread, beans, root vegetables, etc.

More thrills than pills.

Another side of this is that stress has been painted as a boogeyman even when it is completely manageable and not chronic. We all will have periods of increased stress and our bodies, when we keep them taken care of in the meantime, are perfectly capable of dealing with these times without the need to pop a pill.

I Am Preventing or Treating a Cold or Other Illness

There is no reliable scientific evidence to suggest that very high doses of any vitamin or mineral supplements cure or prevent any chronic illness, cancer, colds, etc. Extra vitamin C will NOT cure or prevent a cold and it is only possible that it may reduce some of the symptoms, but probably not significantly. All research into the protective effects of micronutrients is too preliminary to draw conclusions from.

I Need Vitamin and Mineral Supplements to Protect My Body from Smoking or Alcohol

If only it were true. While smoking does increase the body's need for vitamin C, and excessive intake of alcohol does interfere with the body's utilization of most nutrients, taking supplements will not prevent the harmful health effects associated with these habits. In other words, while smoking may mean you need more vitamin C, this does not mean that more vitamin C will prevent you from getting lung cancer. Likewise, taking in more vitamins and minerals will not protect your liver from alcohol abuse.

I Am an Athlete So I Need Extra Vitamins and Minerals

Athletes, including strength trainees, need more energy intake, and a bit more, but not highly excessive, protein intake. If an athlete consumes a varied diet that meets his or her energy needs, then they will probably be getting all the vitamins and minerals they need, since the extra energy from nutrient-dense foods will also provide any extra vitamins and minerals that may be needed. Athletes who are engaged in weight controlled sports, where there are times when it is difficult to ensure good intake of micronutrients, may have more need of supplementation. There is very little convincing evidence that athletes need more micronutrients than other people, besides the amount needed for energy production, which should easily be provided by the extra food.

It is commonly believed that athletes should take more B-vitamins than non-active people. But although marginal vitamin B6 status, for instance, may impair exercise performance, there is no evidence that taking in more than adequate vitamin B6 improves exercise performance.

Many experts and texts add the caveat that athletes who for some reason do not get an adequate diet might need vitamin and mineral supplements, but this makes no sense if you consider it violates the rule that supplements should not be used to make up for an inadequate diet. For some reason, athletes are often given the green light to make the very mistakes that other people would be admonished for, but athletes should, of course, follow the same rules as any other person.

Some Take-Home Points

1. Vitamin and mineral supplements should not be used to make up for poor food choices.

2. Vitamin and mineral supplements do NOT boost energy. You can only derive energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins and the body will not increase its production of energy because you take a vitamin supplement.

3. Any reference to "stress" vitamins is marketing hokum, and emotional stress does NOT increase nutrient needs. The best way to deal with stress is to deal with stress. Eat a good varied diet, exercise, get plenty of rest, make time to relax, etc.

4. Vitamin supplements and minerals are not needed to "make up for foods grown in depleted soils" as if often claimed. Any edible plant that grows well, will tend to be nutritious for a human. And we do not eat just one plant, but many.

5. Vitamin and mineral supplements cannot protect you from the harmful effects of smoking or alcohol abuse.

General References
1. Whitney, Eleanor Noss, Linda K. DeBruyne, Kathryn Pinna, and Sharon Rady Rolfes. Nutrition for Health and Health Care. Australia: Wadsworth, 2011.
2. Dayuff, Roberta L. American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
3. Brown, Judith E. Nutrition Now. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2011.
4. Shils, Maurice E., and Moshe Shike. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006.
5. Driskell, Judy A., and Ira Wolinsky. Sports Nutrition: Vitamins and Trace Elements. Boca Raton, FL: Taylor & Francis, 2005.
6. Insel, Paul M. Nutrition: Myplate Update. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2013.

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