Bad news for those hoping for a quick guarantee of health: For the most part, nutritional supplements aren’t effective. What is worse, they may sometimes be harmful. More than half of Americans take a nutritional supplement despite the fact that evidence increasingly suggests that they may be ineffective for some of their most common uses, including the prevention of heart disease, cognitive impairment and cancer.
In December of 2013, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a summary of three studies into vitamin and mineral supplementation. One was a systematic review of 27 trials that aimed to assess whether the use of single, paired or multivitamins had an impact on cancer, heart disease or all-cause mortality rate. The study found no such impact.
The second study compared the effects of a multivitamin on cognitive function against placebo in almost 6,000 participants, all males aged 65 or older. There was no notable difference between the multivitamin and placebo groups, and the researchers noted that this supports another systematic review that found multivitamins, omega-3 supplements and vitamins E, C and B to be ineffective in the treatment of cognitive impairment.
The third study considered in this review sought to assess whether the use of a multivitamin by men and women with heart problems reduced the risks of cardiovascular events in the future. No effects were found.
Along with the conclusion that supplements are likely ineffective in the above applications, researchers also noted that beta-carotene, vitamin E and vitamin A supplementation showed signs of harmful results. Learn more about each of these studies and the conclusions of the reviewers at annals.org.
Do these results suggest that vitamins and minerals are not important in the prevention of diseases? No. Rather, research supports the conclusion that proper nutrition received from a balanced diet, and not a pill, yields preventative benefits.
Effective Nutritional Prevention
Increasingly, health researchers are concluding that, rather than one or a few ingredients either added to or omitted from the diet, what we really need to focus on is the overall dietary pattern. An extensive review of the available literature gives insight into the dietary patterns associated with some of the more common chronic health conditions. Current research recommends the following patterns for disease prevention:
- Heart Disease Prevention: Low intake of sodium, fat, saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol; high intake of fiber, fruit, vegetables, calcium
- Cancer Prevention: Low intake of meat, animal fat, high-calorie foods; high intake of vegetables and fruits (Poor nutrition is believed to cause about 35% of cancers.)
- Diabetes Prevention: Low intake of saturated fat; high intake of whole grains and dietary fiber
Nutrition is only one component of thorough disease prevention. For more evidence-based prevention measures, see the full review at circ.ahajournals.org
Much of the nutritional advice above overlaps, meaning that adopting a generally healthy diet high in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains and low in well-known unhealthy foods such as processed foods, large amounts of red meat, sugars, salt and refined grains, makes for a well-rounded prevention plan.
Of course, changing your entire lifestyle to prevent something that may never happen can be a real motivational challenge. Keep the following in mind for motivation:
- The CDC reported that, in 2009, 25% of total deaths in the U.S. were associated with heart disease, and 22.9% were associated with cancer. Based on these statistics, Americans have a 47.9% chance of dying from one of these conditions.
- Healthy eating won’t only help prevent potential disease in the future; it will likely yield immediate improvements in pain, body weight, strength and energy.
- Don’t think you’re dooming yourself to a life of tasteless food. Your taste buds will adjust to a diet low in sugars, salts and unhealthy fats.
When it comes to heart disease and cancer prevention, focus on your plate instead of pills.