Healthy Eating for Disease Prevention: Study Shows There’s Still No Quick Fix

Printed with permission from the Cooper Institute

You’ve probably heard (or read on our blog) that there’s just no quick fix for weight loss. But what about a healthy diet? Shouldn’t we all be taking a multivitamin since eating the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is just too hard?

Researchers from the University of Hawaii Cancer Center say “no.”1 After analyzing data on multivitamin and single vitamin/mineral use (along with a host of other demographic, diet, behavior, and medical questions) on over 180,000 adult men and women of various ethnicites, researchers found NO clear decrease or increase in mortality (death) from all causes, cardiovascular disease, or cancer and in morbidity (disease) from overall or major cancers among multivitamin supplement users over an 11-year period. Furthermore, these findings were the same for people of all ethnicities, ages, weights, preexisting illnesses, single vitamin/mineral users, and smokers/nonsmokers.

Thus, while the researchers didn’t find that taking multivitamins had a negative effect, they didn’t find support for widespread multivitamin use by the general American public. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 provide similar recommendations:

“Because a healthy eating pattern provides for most or all nutrient needs, dietary supplements are recommended only for specific population subgroups or in specific situations (listed below). A healthy eating pattern needs to not only promote health and help to decrease the risk of chronic diseases, but it also should prevent foodborne illness, so food safety recommendations need to be followed.” These subgroups do benefit from the following specific dietary supplements:

  • Women capable of becoming pregnant
    • Consume 400 micrograms (mcg) per day of synthetic folic acid (from fortified foods and/or supplements) in addition to food forms of folate from a varied diet.
  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
    • If pregnant, take an iron supplement, as recommended by an obstetrician or other health care provider.
  • Individuals ages 50 years and older
    • Consume foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as fortified cereals, or dietary supplements.

If you think about it, it makes sense. While the science of nutrition has evolved significantly over the last several hundred years, it’s very unlikely that we’ve discovered all of the health-promoting nutrients and components in foods and are able to extract them to be consumed in pill form. Likewise, research on food synergy, or nutrients working together within or between foods to create greater health effects, is in its infancy. Therefore, we should really focus on eating a plant-based diet filled with colorful fruits, vegetables, and whole grains rather than relying on a pill.

Discuss these findings with your doctor or registered dietitian. While he/she may recommend a specific vitamin or mineral for you, it’s likely that he/she will agree that focusing on healthy foods (and exercise) should be your first step for disease prevention.

1Park, S.Y., Murphy, S.P., Wilkens, L.R., et al. Multivitamin use and the risk of mortality and cancer incidence. (2011). Am. J. Epidemiol. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwq447.

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