Do Dietary Supplements Measure Up?

by Jo-Ann Heslin, MA, RD, CDN on June 3, 2011 · 0 comments

Americans spend more than 21 billion dollars a year on dietary supplements, according to the Nutrition Business Journal. Does the research evidence show that our dollars are well spent? Let’s look at some of the studies investigating supplements and see what the results mean to you.

Folic Acid and Hip Fracture: After suffering a stroke many people experience gait abnormalities. Weakness on one side and foot drop is common, increasing the risk of fall and possibly hip fracture. When researchers gave subjects 500 micrograms of folic acid and 1,500 micrograms of B12 daily, their risk of hip fracture went down. The study used a fairly large population, had a control group, and the investigators did not know until the study was completed (double-blind experiment) which subjects were taking the vitamins compared to those who did not.

Bottom line: strong conclusions. What does it mean for you? Eating folate-fortified bread and cereals and more green leafy vegetables may be protective against future hip fracture. And, if you are over 50, taking a vitamin B12 supplement is probably a good idea.

Calcium + Vitamin D: We all know we should get enough calcium to prevent fractures as we age. But, did you know that vitamin D is also vital for strong bones? A meta-analysis was done to see if there was value in taking vitamin D along with calcium to prevent fractures in people over 60. Individuals who took 700 to 800 IUs of vitamin D plus 500 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily had reduced risk for hip fracture. A meta-analysis lumps together the results of many studies and re-examines them as if they were one big study. If the initial studies were strong, but small, this can strengthen results.

What does this mean to you? If you are taking a calcium supplement choose one with vitamin D.

Another research study looked at how effective supplemental calcium and vitamin D were in reducing the risk of colon cancer.

The conclusion: a very weak protective effect from the supplements. So stick with your calcium + D supplement for bone health and possibly you’ll receive a slight protective effect against colon cancer as well.

Vitamin E, Heart Disease and Cancer: Population studies have indicated that vitamin E may reduce the risk for heart disease and cancer. Many people take extra vitamin E daily hoping for this protection. Two research projects examined this hypothesis. Both had large populations which they followed for many years making the results strong. Neither study found that vitamin E protected against cancer or heart disease. One study actually showed an increase in heart disease with supplemented vitamin E and the other showed a slight protective effect for women over 65.

What does this mean to you? Taking supplemental vitamin E in hopes of reducing your risk for cancer or heart disease is probably not the best bet.

Ginseng and Colds: Everyone hopes to find a cure for the common cold. Ginseng has long been touted for its immune enhancing properties. In one study 300 subjects were given 400 milligrams of ginseng daily during cold season. Compared to the placebo group, they reported fewer colds and fewer symptoms per cold.

What does this mean to you? Taking a daily ginseng supplement during cold season might be helpful.

Chitosan and Weight Loss: Infomercials and late night TV are full of products that claim if you take 2 pills a day, the fat melts away. Many of these products contain chitosan, a supplement that traps fat in the digestive track so it cannot be absorbed. Many research studies have concluded that chitosan does not promote weight loss.

What does this mean to you? Fat busting pills are not all they are cracked up to be.

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