Are Vitamin Supplements Helpful or Harmful?

By Malkie Khutoretsky
 Getty / Darren McCollester
*Updated 2020
Seventy-seven percent of American adults are supplementing their diets with vitamin supplements. While a vitamin is a natural substance usually found in food, a supplement is a manufactured product that contains one or more vitamins combined with other ingredients, like amino acids. Whether through pills, powders or oils, consumers are taking vitamin supplements in the hopes of enhancing their nutrition, boosting their immune system, increasing mental health and improving general day-to-day function. Today, as COVID-19 keeps spreading, more and more people are turning to vitamin supplements to help boost their immune systems. But how much do we really know about our vitamin supplements? Are they helping our bodies as much as we think they are?
The following are three arguments against vitamin supplements and three supporting them.


Get your vitamins from food, not a bottle


Health Kick or Marketing Tool?

In 2018, the vitamin supplement industry, including vitamins, minerals, protein & amino acids, etc., was worth an estimated $140 billion, and it’s projected to rise to $216.3 billion by 2026. With the global wellness industry growing exponentially, (in 2019 alone, its estimated value was $4.75 trillion), it’s no surprise that the vitamin supplement industry is also booming; Americans reportedly spend $635 a year on nutritional supplements. Its growth is boosted by influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow, among other celebrities-turned-health-gurus, who promote vitamin supplements via social media with little follow-up information or accountability. This industry feeds off such misinformation: Despite claiming to be health-focused, it can be viewed like any other business, which prioritizes its sales numbers. In fact, in some instances, the supplement industry can even have hidden dangers for consumers.


Uninformed Patients and Doctors

Vitamins have an unreliable relationship with prescription medicine. As consumers don’t tend to mentally classify vitamin supplements as medicine, this can be problematic. At the doctor’s office, patients who take vitamin supplements often unknowingly say no when asked if they’re taking any medicine regularly. But vitamin supplements are among the vital information that doctors need to know. For instance, B-12 supplements are recommended readily, specifically to the elderly, as are vitamin K, which helps prevent hip problems. However, these supplements can affect certain medications. Although vitamin K is useful in joint function, it acts against blood-thinning medication. These compounds, prescription or vitamin, are part of a delicate cocktail that the average person cannot navigate safely.


Vitamin Toxicity

There’s such a thing as taking too many vitamins. This is called vitamin toxicity. Vitamin supplements mix together different vitamins, among other ingredients. This is where things start to get tricky. Unknown levels of large doses of antioxidants, as found in vitamins like A, B and C, can increase risk of heart failure and mortality. Also, too much vitamin D can harm your kidneys; this is especially important to note today, when people are increasingly turning to vitamin D to help boost their immune system against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Plus, in order to keep our immune system functioning, our body actually needs a certain amount of “free radicals,” which are the “bad cells” that vitamins fight. Therefore, ingesting too many vitamins may get rid of too many free radicals, unintentionally creating an imbalance within our bodies and doing the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve.


Give your body a boost


Accessible and Efficient

A decade ago, Americans consumed 31% more packaged foods than fresh foods. Today, highly processed foods make up 70% of the calories in the food Americans buy at their supermarkets. Coupled with the increasing price of fruits and vegetables, the average American’s diet lacks important vitamins and minerals. Our culture’s need for quantity over quality has led to a distinct decline in nutrients in our crops and fresh foods. For example, fresh salmon is famous for providing us with Omega-3. However, the amount of Omega-3 that the body actually absorbs from the farmed salmon compared to the amount of toxins also found in it is hardly worth the price of the fish. Instead, an investment in vitamin supplements allows your body to directly absorb Omega-3, encouraging metabolic function, without exposing yourself to the hidden toxins. (That the supplements are cheaper than the salmon is just an added bonus.)


Catered to the Individual

Fifty percent of the average older adult has a vitamin and mineral intake of less than the recommended daily intake. This is due to a decrease in food consumption; as we get older, we’re unable to consume foods the way we once did. Whether this is due to lack of appetite or inability to process solid foods, vitamin supplements can often be their only alternative to maintaining a healthy diet. Additionally, pregnant women, or even women trying to get pregnant, are advised that supplementing vitamin D enforces healthy fetal bones as well as maternal bones, and folic acid can help prevent birth defects. Plus, zinc, the most effective mineral to aid healthy reproduction and a staple of a prenatal supplement kit, is not readily found in plant-based diets. This also makes zinc supplements, among others, very beneficial to those on a vegetarian or vegan diet.


Mental Health

Vitamin supplements support mental health as well as physical health. A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 27% of severely depressed women over the age of 65 were deficient in B-12. By these statistics, it would seem that more than one-quarter of all severe depression could be treated with B-12 shots. Let’s not forget Magnesium, which is missing in 48% of Americans diets. Magnesium deficiency can be linked to stress and insomnia, which severely impact mental health, and type 2 diabetes.  Vitamin supplements also lower blood pressure and increase healthy sleep patterns, both of which increase mental health and resilience.


The Bottom Line: Vitamin supplements have become a staple of the American home, especially today, when everyone is trying to ward off COVID-19. They provide a quick and easy fix to the country’s vitamin deficiency problem. However, with not enough regulation, the industry leaves us vulnerable to further harm. Are vitamin supplements helping or hurting society?

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