Two weeks ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that not only questioned the efficacy of antioxidant supplements, but also their safety. TODAY nutritionist Joy Bauer breaks down the results and how you can take the right vitamins safely.
How can people make sense of this disturbing new information?
First — it’s not actually new information; this was a meta-analysis, so it combined the results of several already-published studies (68 studies were included in this review).
The objective of this study was to assess the effect of beta-carotene, selenium, and vitamins A, C, and E on mortality, i.e., whether these antioxidants help you live longer. And in terms of the outcome,… to quote the conclusions from the actual study…. it says: “Treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality. The potential roles of vitamin C and selenium on mortality need further study.”
These results certainly sound disturbing, but keep in mind many health experts have criticized this study for the following reasons.
One big issue concerns the diverse nature of the pooled studies. Critics say that the ones included were too different in terms of dosage, duration, populations studied, and nutrients tested to be able to draw a meaningful conclusion. They also question why two large studies from China and Italy which showed a lowered risk of mortality among antioxidant supplement users were excluded. Another criticism is that the studies only looked at how these nutrients worked in unhealthy people, not in how they might prevent illness in the first place. Finally, there’s the issue of amounts. Many of the people included in the studies were taking very high doses of antioxidants — much higher than the RDA, and much, MUCH higher than the levels found in a typical serving of fruit or vegetables.
What are we supposed to do? Who do we believe?
Remember that the study examined supplements, not food. No one is disputing the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, which are super-rich in antioxidants, as well as other nutrients you just can’t find in a pill. Furthermore, these naturally-occurring nutrients interact in ways we haven’t figured out yet.
That being said, I say people should stop taking MEGA-doses of antioxidants unless there's a real reason for taking them…. and that’s something to work out with your personal doctor.
On the other hand, I do think most people will benefit from a basic multivitamin to fill in any potential nutrient gaps in their diets (most importantly you’ll get 100% daily value for Vitamin D —an important vitamin that most people do not get enough of). Think of it as an “insurance policy.”
I’m also a fan of calcium supplements (with additional Vitamin D3) for women who don’t get enough from food. Make sure it’s D-3 (cholecalciferol), which is more bioavailable than D-2.
Finally —I really like omega-3 fish oil supplements because they’re so good for overall heart health. If you don’t eat enough omega-3-rich fish — like salmon and sardines — you may want to consider a supplement. Always speak with your physician first.
That’s about it for the general population. People with health problems may need to take extra supplements, of course, but they should get expert advice before they hit the vitamin store.
If you do decide to take supplements, make sure they are SAFE.
Your best bets are to buy products that display the “USP verified” logo on the label; it means the supplement has been tested and verified for the following:
- What’s on the label is in the bottle -- no more, no less.
- It doesn’t contain harmful levels of contaminants.
- It will break down properly in your body.
- It has been made under good manufacturing processes.
You can also subscribe to “Consumerlab.com”. This company reviews a broad range of dietary supplements, and then tests popular brands for identity, potency, purity, bioavailability, and consistency — much like USP verified products. I really like Consumerlab.com because it gives you so many brands to choose from, and their reviews are very educational.
For more information on healthy eating, visit TODAY nutrition expert, Joy Bauer’s website (and check out her new book Joy Bauer’s Food Cures) atwww.joybauernutrition.com