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Vitamins: Good Health or Big Hype? 

Lose weight! Increase muscle mass! Lower your risk of disease! Reduce stress! Sleep better!

Whether you’ve been surfing the web, watching TV or thumbing through a magazine in the checkout line, chances are you’ve seen your fair share of ads for vitamins and vitamin-based supplements that promise to do all this and more. It’s no wonder that Americans spend more than $6 billion annually on vitamins.*

But before getting your hopes up–or opening up your wallet–it’s important to know the benefits, risks and limitations of vitamins.

Buyer Beware

“People take vitamins for a variety of different reasons,” says Stephanie Dean, R.D., CSSD, L.D., outpatient dietitian at Baylor Dallas. “One of the most common reasons I hear, though, is from people who don’t eat the healthiest foods who think taking vitamins will make up for that.”

But Dean says that vitamins can’t replace a proper diet. Healthy foods contain essential nutrients that can never be fully replaced by a pill or powder.

Another common misconception about vitamins is that they are studied and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The vitamin industry isn’t regulated,” explains Dean. “So you don’t know if what the vitamin companies say is in the vitamin is really in the vitamin or how much of it is in them. Tests have actually shown that often times what the bottle says is in the vitamin, isn’t, or it’s in a different dose.”

And that’s a big problem because too much of an ingredient may be toxic if taken in high doses. Compounding the risk is that many people assume that because vitamins are good for you, taking more than the recommended dose is better.

When to take supplements, especially if taking additional medication, is also important. Taking medicine and vitamins too closely together can decrease the effectiveness of or amplify the affects of a medication. For example, iron and calcium can impede the absorption of thyroid medication and should not be taken within 4 hours of each other, says Dean.

Doing the Body Good

While there are plenty of reasons to be careful when selecting vitamins, there are equally as many good reasons to add them to your diet.

Vitamin Deficiency. Even people who eat a balanced diet can suffer from a vitamin deficiency. This is especially true during the winter months when the sun is often in short supply, which makes getting the recommended amount of vitamin D a challenge.

Disease Relief. While vitamins have never been proven to lead directly to weight loss or improve your time at the gym, numerous studies have shown the positive impact of fish oil, a good source of omega-3. According to Dean, fish oil may reduce your risk of heart disease and could help lower the risk of other ailments such as cancer and even depression.

In addition, vitamin E can be part of an effective treatment plan for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and calcium has long been prescribed for individuals with, or at-risk of, osteoporosis.     

Weight Loss Surgery/Programs.  Weight loss surgery and certain diets involve drastically cutting the amount of food you eat, and therefore vitamin intake. Again, while vitamins can’t replace a healthy diet, a multivitamin can be a good dietary supplement.

Immune Boost. Taking vitamin C is a good way to give your immune system a boost and possibly help ward off a cold or the flu.

Pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, eating for two also means needing vitamins for two. Many obstetricians will start their patients on prenatal vitamins from early on in pregnancy. Again, it’s important to be cautious about over supplementing on vitamins, particularly for pregnant women. Too much vitamin A may be harmful to an unborn baby, so follow dosage guidelines when taking this supplement. 

To Take or Not to Take

Dean says that there are telltale signs that it may be time to consider vitamins to address a deficiency. For instance, an overwhelming urge to chew ice could mean an iron deficiency, while a metallic taste in the mouth could indicate a zinc deficiency. 

But before starting on vitamins or supplements, people should always consult their physician or a dietitian.