The Common Supplement Myth You Should Stop Believing

If taking a vitamin is part of your everyday routine, you're not alone. A survey conducted in 2019 by The Harris Poll revealed that 86% of American adults consume vitamins or supplements, according to the American Osteopathic Association.

Considering so many people make supplements a part of their regular diet, there must be something to them being a vital part of supporting your health — or is there?

What exactly are supplements anyway and why do so many people feel the need to take them?

First, it's worth noting that while nutritional science is a fairly new field, our ancestors saw the link between food and health thousands of years ago, with ancient civilizations in Greece, Egypt, Persia, and China taking some approaches to eating that we often adhere to even today.

However, the word "vitamin" itself is a fairly new term, invented only a century ago. In 1920, Polish biochemist Casimir Funk, also known as the "father of the vitamin," created the precursor to "vitamin" by combining "vital" (based on the Latin word "vita," which means "life") and "amine," an organic compound associated with amino acids, which Funk believed vitamins contained.  It was later discovered that "vital amines" did not contain amino acids, which led to the name change.

Funk's work was instrumental in linking the factors in foods that are crucial in preventing nutritional deficiencies that can lead to certain diseases. For instance, the disease scurvy is connected to a deficiency in vitamin C. Another example is rickets, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin D, according to the American Nutrition Association (ANA).

How our knowledge of vitamins has evolved

Funk's research and contributions to vitamin study provided the groundwork for ensuing discoveries and advancements in the field of nutrition. For instance, his work led to the classification of vitamins as essential nutrients and was instrumental in laying the foundation for what eventually evolved into the modern vitamin industry, per the Australasian Medical Journal.

"Vital amines" were eventually renamed "vitamins" when British scientist Dr. Jack Drummond, a colleague of Funk's, suggested the "e" be removed so people would not presume that amines were present. Consequently, "vitamin" became the adopted name in the United States in 1920. According to SFGate, Dr. Drummond was also the one who initiated the idea of using the alphabet as a simple way to identify the different types of vitamins.

Vitamins fall within two categories: fat-soluble vitamins and water-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in fatty tissue and the liver where they can sometimes remain stored for months. On the other hand, the body does not store water-soluble vitamins, which leave the body through urine. Consequently, our bodies tend to need more water-soluble vitamins. There are 13 total vitamins, most of which are present in foods. For instance, fat-soluble vitamin A, which promotes healthy eyesight, can be found in a wide variety of sources, including eggs, carrots, and milk. Vitamin C, which is water soluble and supports a healthy immune system and the formation of bone, can be found in many fruits and vegetables.

Why vitamins supplements are usually not necessary

As researchers continue investigating supplements, the evidence varies as to whether taking them promotes your health. According to the experts at Penn Medicine, vitamins remain popular because they do work — sometimes. While taking supplements such as vitamin B12 may help support nerve and blood health and vitamin D could boost your bone strength, most studies have concluded that taking supplements will not help you live longer, reduce your chances of cognitive decline or lower your risk of getting serious health conditions. In fact, it is illegal for supplement manufacturers to claim that their products can achieve these types of results.

Additionally, taking supplements can sometimes be unsafe. Dr. Jeffrey Millstein, a physician at Penn Internal Medicine Woodbury Heights, says this is because supplements may combine in negative ways with medications you're taking or increase the risk of issues if you have a medical condition. Taking supplements is also a no-no if you are about to have surgery. Additionally, pregnant women and nursing mothers should probably avoid taking supplements other than as advised by their doctors due to limited testing.

Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees the vitamins and supplements industry, the supplements landscape is so vast — with some 90,000 products on the market — it's impossible to regulate, which is why you should proceed with caution, per JAMA Internal Medicine. While supplements may be helpful in some instances, most studies show that we absorb vitamins best through foods. Consequently, health experts across the board advise getting your vitamin needs via a balanced diet.