Americans are wasting billions every year on useless supplements, scientists warn

Americans are wasting billions every year on useless supplements, scientists warn

For years, scientists say there isn’t much evidence to recommend vitamin supplements for most people, with a growing body of research suggesting that most pills are useless and don’t necessarily make us healthier.

However, the message did not pass. More than half of American adults regularly take dietary supplements, fueling an industry worth about $ 50 billion a year.

That’s enough, researchers say. In the latest repudiation of vitamin supplements, the U.S. Preventive Services Working Group (USPSTF) has issued new recommendations, formally stating that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that supplements provide benefits to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. leading causes of death in the US. .

The new USPSTF recommendations, the first in relation to vitamin supplements since 2014, were not taken lightly, but only after taking into account 84 studies evaluating the effects of supplements, which covered almost 740,000 participants. in total.

“Unfortunately, based on existing evidence, the working group cannot recommend for or against the use of most vitamins and minerals and calls for more research,” says the USPSTF’s interim scientific director. , John Wong.

However, there are some important warnings to keep in mind, as not all findings were misleading.

The new recommendations regarding insufficient evidence of benefits only apply to healthy adults without nutritional deficiencies, and do not apply to people who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, who are advised to take acid supplements. folic.

In addition, while the USPSTF found that the evidence was generally unclear for supplements for healthy, nonpregnant adults, for two products in particular, the data were less ambiguous: vitamin E and beta-carotene, which is not clear. recommends taking. .

“We’ve found that there is no benefit to taking vitamin E and that beta-carotene can be harmful because it increases the risk of lung cancer in people who are already at risk,” says USPSTF Vice President Michael Barry.

Aside from these limitations, however, the new recommendations essentially reaffirm what many scientists have been telling us for years: There is no real proof that these pills are good for us.

But at the same time, except in exceptional cases, such as when supplements are contaminated with hidden pharmaceutical ingredients, there isn’t much to suggest that they’re bad for us either.

“The task force doesn’t say‘ Don’t take multivitamins, ’” says Dr. Jeffrey Linder, head of general internal medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“But there’s an idea that if these were really good for you, we’d know.”

Linder, co-author of a new editorial comment on the use of supplements and new USPSTF recommendations, says there are good reasons why people believe supplements will be good for their health.

“In theory, vitamins and minerals have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that should slow the development of cardiovascular disease and cancer,” says commentator, co-author of Northwestern University researchers Jenny Jia and Natalie Cameron.

“Eating fruits and vegetables is associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. It is reasonable to think that key vitamins and minerals could be extracted from fruits and vegetables, packaged in a pill, and people could avoid the difficulty and the expense of maintaining a balanced diet.

Unfortunately, all the evidence we have does not really confirm this assumption, suggesting that for reasons we do not yet fully understand, micronutrients isolated from other natural components of the diet do not appear to offer the same health benefits as when they group together and eat the food.

Even more sadly, the dietary supplement industry is taking advantage of people’s misunderstanding about this ambiguous point, spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year to perpetuate false beliefs about the powers of vitamin pills.

Not only is there money at stake. Scientists worry that people’s health is also at risk, simply because there is a significant opportunity cost every time a patient’s approach is misdirected, with evidence-based health care losing in the face of endless formulations of snake oil.

“[Patients are] wasting money and focusing on thinking that there has to be a magic set of pills to keep them healthy when we should all be following the evidence-based practices of eating healthy and exercising, ”says Linder.

“The bad thing is that by talking to patients about supplements for the very limited time we have to see them, we miss advice on how to really reduce cardiovascular risk, such as through exercise or quitting smoking.”

The new recommendations are published in JAMAalong with an overview of the research behind the recommendations and the accompanying editorial.

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