On the Table

Do we really need supplements?

November 27, 2012 

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A recent study shows that dietary supplements actually increased the risk of death for older women.

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The year is winding down, but the nutrition news hasn’t stopped coming. We’re about to close out 2012 with the bang of more evidence of the ineffectiveness of dietary supplements.

A study being published in the December issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism by John Anderson and colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill suggests that customary high intakes of calcium in older adults – usually gotten through calcium supplements – provide no benefits to hip or lumbar bone density.

Also, intakes higher than current recommendations for calcium had little or no effect on the rate of hip fractures in older adults, whether or not they took supplemental vitamin D on top of the extra calcium.

The information isn’t surprising anymore.

Research has been accumulating and calling into question long-held notions about the value of vitamin and mineral supplements for healthy adults. This time, though, it’s accompanied by the suggestion that it now may be time for health professionals to change their advice concerning calcium supplements.

The researchers state that as bone density declines with age, pumping up calcium intakes to high levels using supplements is not warranted as a means of staving off further bone loss or preventing fractures.

In fact, it may cause harm. It’s possible that high calcium intakes may contribute to coronary artery disease and kidney stones, the researchers say.

The mystery is where the extra calcium goes if it doesn’t end up in the bones. It’s possible that some of it is lost through the urine and feces.

Research has suggested that excess urinary calcium may be a factor in the creation of kidney stones.

But another troublesome possibility is that the calcium may be ending up in plaque build-ups in arteries and heart valves. Studies from New Zealand and Finland have documented the association, while others have said there’s no need to worry about it.

All of this begs the question of whether it’s time for a dose of caution rather than another dose of calcium.

It won’t be easy to wean us off supplements. It means kicking the dependence on pills as nutritional health insurance.

I’m more motivated than ever to get what I need – and not more – from whole foods.

It’s time for the medical establishment to update its advice on supplements.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net and follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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