You Don't Need to Supplement, and Other Nutrition Myths

Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD


Published on

06 July 2016


Diet dogma has a life of its own. Even when science reveals the truth behind a diet fad or web rumor, the myth lingers on.  Here are a few mistaken identities in the nutrition arena.     

Myth No. 1: Vitamin supplements are a waste of time.

Fact: Every so often the news reports on a study that found supplements are unnecessary. Before you toss your vitamins, read on.          

If a study came out finding that people who drank water had no lower risk for cancer, would you stop drinking water? If another study reported that people who meet their recommendation for protein were at no lower risk for heart disease than people who ate too little protein, would you eliminate protein from your diet? Probably not. Both water and protein are essential nutrients.           

Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients, too. The human body can’t make them, yet must have them to survive and thrive. These essential nutrients must come from the diet on a regular basis and in amounts known to ensure life, as well as health. A lack of even one vitamin or mineral over time can have devastating consequences, in many cases even death.           

Just because you’re not on your death bed, is not a sign you are optimally nourished. National nutrition surveys spanning decades of research repeatedly find that many Americans do not meet the basic requirements for certain vitamins and/or minerals. The USDA’s Healthy Eating Index, a tool to assess Americans’ eating habits, rating them on a scale of 0 to 100, consistently finds that most Americans score below or in the 60s, equivalent to an “F” or a “D” ranking on nutrition. Why not fill in the gaps with a moderate-dose, well-balanced multi supplement on the days when you don’t eat perfectly? There is no harm in taking a moderate-dose multi-vitamin and mineral. In fact, people who supplement tend to be healthier. Supplementing responsibly is one of the lowest cost preventive measures you can adopt. (1-3)           

Of course, popping a pill is not license to eat junk. That’s why they are called supplements, not substitutes for an excellent diet.  Even the most staunch supporters of supplements agree that no pill can replace a healthy diet and lifestyle. It is one factor in a pattern of living that helps prevent disease and prolong the healthy years.  (4-6)

Myth No. 2: Flax is the best source of omega-3s for vegetarians.

Fact: There are three omega-3s and they are not created equal. The omega-3 in flax, walnuts, soy and other plant foods is called alpha linolenic acid or ALA. It appears to help lower heart disease risk and reduce chronic inflammation in the body. The other two omega-3s, docosahexaenoic acid or DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA are found in fatty fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel or sardines. Like ALA, these two omega-3s may lower heart disease and inflammation, but their health benefits go far beyond what ALA can do. These omega-3s, especially DHA, show promise in improving vision and lowering the risk for hypertension and a host of cognitive issues. Granted, some of the ALA in flax can be converted to DHA and EPA in the body, but the conversion is small to insignificant. The good news is that fish get their omega-3s from a vegetarian source - algae, which is concentrated in the tissues of little fish. Bigger fish eat the little fish. Supplements of these algal-based omega-3s are available, including Ovega-3. In addition, some foods and beverages are fortified with algal DHA.  Look for the life’sDHA logo to know you’re getting a high-quality vegetarian source of DHA.

Myth No. 3: Carbs are fattening.

Fact: Just the opposite. Starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn, and 100 percent whole grains are quality carbs that are the mainstay of all diets worldwide, since they supply glucose, the main fuel for everything from muscles to brain. They also are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. For example, the fiber in oats, called beta glucan, helps lower blood sugar and cholesterol, thus playing an important role in the prevention or management of diabetes and heart disease. That fiber also fills you up without filling you out, so it is a great addition to any weight-loss diet. But, avoid their refined counterparts, such as white bread, and their high-fat friends such as butter, cream cheese, and sour cream. Ounce for ounce these add-ons contain more than twice the calories. For example, a generous smear of butter has more calories than a slice of bread (108 versus 61 calories), while a plain potato has only 88 calories compared to the same potato french fried, which packs more than four times the calories (354 calories). (7,8)

 Myth No. 4: Drinking a glass of water before a meal helps curb appetite.

Fact: Water does curb appetite, but mostly when it is incorporated into food, not enjoyed from a glass. Several studies from Pennsylvania State University found that only water in soups, thick beverages like tomato juice, and other liquid foods fills us up. In one study, women were given a snack of chicken rice casserole with a glass of water or a chicken rice soup that contained the same amount of water as broth. Results showed that the soup was more filling even though it contained 27 percent fewer calories than the casserole. The reasoning why water bound to food is filling, while a glass of water is not, is unclear, but it could be that the bound water slows digestion, whereas a glass of water just passes right through. (9)

Myth No. 5: Eating healthy costs too much.

Fact: Nice try, but no go. Granted, wild salmon and imported olive oil cost more than a fast food meal, but you don’t need to put a strain on your wallet to eat well. Pound for pound, health-boosting oatmeal, beans and apples are cheaper than eggs and bacon, steak or even chips. To pare down the food bill:

  • Buy less expensive produce such as apples, oranges, carrots and cabbage

  • Look for specials and use coupons

  • Buy in bulk items such as oatmeal, brown rice, nuts and staples

  • Shop at warehouse clubs where larger quantities also are less expensive

  • Switch to beans, which are much less expensive than meat

  • Bring food with you so you’re not tempted to impulse buy expensive items

  • Buy generic store brands of frozen vegetables, canned fruit, milk and other items that typically cost less than brand names           

A big tub of fried chicken might seem like a deal until you factor in the added costs of wardrobes, weight management programs, health care costs and lost days of work due to complications of being overweight – then it’s not such a bargain.


Read more about our expert Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD

Selected References

1. Hiza H, Casavale K, Guenther P, et al: Diet quality of Americans differs by age, sex, race/ethnicity, income, and education level. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2012;November 15th.

2. Krebs-Smith S, Cleveland L, Ballard-Barbash R, et al: Characterizing food intake patterns of American adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1997;65(supple):1264-1268.

3. Barnett J, Dao M, Hamer D: Effect of zinc supplementation on serum zinc concentration and T cell proliferation in nursing home elderly. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2016;103:942-951.

4. Pfisterer K, Sharratt M, Heckman G, et al: Vitamin B12 status in older adults living in Ontario long-term care homes. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism 2016; January 19th.

5.  Masoumi S, Ataollahi M, Oshvandi K: Effect of combined use of calcium and vitamin B6 on premenstrual syndrome symptoms. Journal of Caring Sciences 2016; 5:67-73.

6.  Burr N, Hull M, Subramanian V: Folic acid supplementation may reduce colorectal cancer risk in patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology 2016; February 22nd.

7. Hou Q, Li Y, Li L, et al: The metabolic effects of oats intake in patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutrients 2015;7:10369-10387.                       

8. Cloetens L, Ulmius M, Johnasson-Persson A, et al: Role of dietary beta glucans in the prevention of the metabolic syndrome. Nutrition Reviews 2012;70:444-458.

9. Rolls B, Bell E, Thorwart M: Water incorporated into a food but not served with a food decreased energy intake in lean women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1999;70:448-455.

10. Clark H, Harrison C, Reid C, et al: Effect of supplements of fruit and vegetables on food intake, body weight, and appetite among Scottish consumers. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2000;Spring:55A.

11. Raynor H, Kilanowski C, Esterlis I, et al: A cost-analysis of adopting a healthful diet in a family-based obesity treatment program. Journal of the American Dietetic American 2002;102:645-656.

12. Obesity costs states billions in medical expenses. CDC Office of Communications, January 21, 2004.

13. Gorsky R, Pamuk E, Williamson D, et al: The 25-year health care costs of women who remain overweight after 40 years of age. American Journal Prevention Medicine 1996;12:388-394.

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