The question of vitamins: Nutritional supplements are big business, but are they doing us any good? _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Kyle PevetoPhoto illustration of vitamins.

A vitamin a day can be a huge waste of money, some doctors say.

Or it could contribute to good health.

Many medical professionals agree that all the nutrition a person needs can be gotten through a proper diet, but a lot of Americans don’t pay that much attention to what they eat.

“A one-a-day vitamin would not be a bad idea if you know that your diet sucks,” said Cathy Champagne, a very blunt dietitian at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

One-third of American adults regularly take a multivitamin, according to a 2011 study, fueling a $27 billion nutritional supplement industry.

Some of the vitamins and minerals in those pills build up in the body, while others, such as the B vitamins and vitamin C, get flushed out as waste when you’ve built up too much, leading some doctors and dietitians to call vitamins a waste of money.

“If you take a whole lot of these, then you can get more expensive urine and not a great amount of benefit,” said Dr. Frank Greenway, a medical doctor and researcher at Pennington.

But researchers have found some connections between vitamins and improved health. A study published recently in the Journal of Nutrition found that women who took multivitamins for at least three years had a lower risk of dying from heart disease. The men in the study didn’t fare so well.

Another study of 14,000 male physicians found that those who took a multivitamin had a slightly lower risk of cancer death. Greenway, who participated in the study, said that the doctors studied probably ate better than the average person.

“So there may well be a small benefit from taking a multivitamin once a day, even for those who presumably have a good diet,” Greenway said.

For the record, Greenway sees little risk in taking a multivitamin and recommends patients take one if they fear a vitamin deficiency.

But using vitamins like a Band-Aid to fill nutrition gaps will not help bad eating habits, Champagne said. To avoid “mindless eating,” the dietitian recommends tracking all the nutrients taken in during a day. Once it’s clear what a nutritionally dense, well-rounded diet looks like, it will be easier to replicate.

“It’s like mindless eating. People eat in front of the television set,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know what the heck they eat.”

“I think you should focus on your diet and use the vitamins as a back-up in case you really think you’re failing at the diet,” Champagne said. “But the priority should be the diet. Basically, if you’re taking vitamins and you don’t need them, it’s like throwing money away.”

Who needs vitamins?

Champagne says while the average American does not need supplements to gain all the nutrients needed in a day, there are a few special cases.

Vegetarians and vegans need vitamin B12, Champagne said, because it is only found in animal protein.

“You could eat all the beans in the world and not get enough B12,” she said.

Dieters who are restricting their calories to lose weight may need additional vitamins because they may not get enough nutrients from their shrunken menu, Greenway said. Women could often use more iron during their menstrual cycles, he said, and pregnant women are usually prescribed prenatal vitamins with lots of folic acid, which guards against some birth defects.

People who cannot properly absorb all their nutrients — those who have had certain weight-loss surgeries or take various weight-loss drugs — should take vitamin supplements as “an insurance policy,” Greenway said.

How about kids?

Children are a huge market for multivitamins.

And Greenway said there is little risk in giving kids their Flintstone vitamins or gummy supplements.

“It is a time in life when they’re growing and developing their brains and bodies, and parents feel like they want to be sure their children are as healthy as they can be,” the physician said.

Children are most in need of iron and vitamin D. Parents who fear their children have a vitamin deficiency should visit a pediatrician, Champagne said.

Most youngsters can get the nutrients they need from a healthy diet, Champagne said, unless they turn up their noses at most foods.

“If they are picky eaters, then by all means take a multivitamin,” she said.

When to take them?

Most dietary supplements pack a lot of nutrients into a little pill so your body needs to be ready for optimal absorption.

Take supplements with food and plenty of water.

“All the absorption of the vitamins and minerals that you would get in a supplement is going to be highly enhanced if taken with food because you are creating a medium for absorption,” Champagne said.

Many multivitamins can cause a serious upset stomach if taken without food, so follow the directions on the label.