Ever since she was four, Kennedy Green ’14 has taken vitamins regularly, starting with vitamin gummy bears and later switching to multivitamins. When her father told her to drink more milk because she wasn’t growing enough, she started taking calcium supplements, which she says helped her grow seven inches since ninth grade.
“I don’t drink milk, so if I don’t take my pills, I probably have to take two boxes of soymilk,” Green said.
Green also took iron supplements in middle school due to anemia but stopped when her doctor recommended that she eat iron rich foods like sardines and spinach instead. She said she will probably start taking iron supplements again in college, if she does not have enough time to continue her iron rich diet.
On the whole, Green said that taking supplements has been beneficial, which is why she continues to take them.
“I try to take them to supplement my food,” she said. “As a Harvard-Westlake student, it’s so much easier to get sick and feel tired when I don’t take my multivitamins.”
Green is one of 43.7% of students who take dietary supplements, according to a Chronicle poll of 458 students. Dietary supplements include anything from vitamins and minerals to herbal products and enzymes.
A 2013 Gallup poll reported that approximately half of Americans take vitamins or other mineral supplements regularly, with older and wealthier Americans with higher levels of education being more likely to take vitamins.
Because he also thought that supplements would help improve his diet, Jeremy Bradford ’14 started drinking flaxseed oil and taking daily teen vitamins two years ago. His doctor recommended these supplements as sources of nutrients like omega-3.
“It was all a part of me trying to get better nutrition to run well and get enough daily vitamins in,” he said. “The fact that I have well-rounded nutrition makes me feel better, so I think it did help.”
Bradford cited convenience as another reason for taking supplements, since he does not always have time for a full meal.
“The [cafeteria menu] doesn’t always interest me, and I don’t always have the time to wait in line in between classes,” he said.
Science teacher Walt Werner takes multivitamins every morning and vitamin D as recommended by his cardiologist. While he has not always been consistent with his vitamins, he said that he made an effort to take them more regularly after being diagnosed with lymphoma last summer.
“I have been taking them off and on for a while, but I’ve been really much more conscientious about it now, especially when my body was being zapped by all the chemotherapy,” Werner said.
He said that in addition to taking vitamins, he tries to eat healthy. At school, he usually has a salad or smaller portions of food for lunch. At home, both he and his wife, history teacher Francine Werner ’68, are conscientious about their diets, he said.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published by the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, states, “nutrient needs should be met primarily through consuming foods. In certain cases, fortified foods and dietary supplements may be useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise might be consumed in less than recommended amounts.”
Strength and conditioning coach at Impact Basketball Alex Bui also believes that supplements only help to a certain extent. Even though it is often convenient for teenage athletes to consume protein supplements after a game, there is no need for supplements if you have a well-balanced diet, he said.
“[Supplements] are not that effective, and they’re not necessary for students or for anybody, really,” he said. “You can’t really substitute the minerals and vitamins from food with supplements.”
Although not all of the food in the cafeteria is healthful and nutritious, cafeteria worker Den Iam said that there are many options available for students who want to eat healthy.
“We have so much variety that [students] can choose what to eat,” Iam said. “We have vegetarian food, salads, sandwiches. The food we cook is also healthy, like white meat and brown rice.”
He added that there are also snacks at the cafeteria, like protein bars, supplemented with multivitamins and omega-3.
However, some students believe that vitamins and other health supplements are not very effective.
Eugenie Lund-Simon ’14 began taking calcium pills and Asian herbal products around six years ago after receiving recommendations from doctors. Even though she still takes them to balance her medications, she thinks that some of the claims she sees on labels are not always accurate.
“I don’t see any difference whatsoever if I do or don’t take them,” Lund-Simon said. “Personally, I think some of them are a waste of money. But doctors recommended taking these, and it also makes my mom happy.”
Similarly, Grace Chung ’14 takes daily women’s vitamins, fish oil and vitamin gummy bears. Because she was often hungry, she started taking fish oil when her friend recommended it. Instead of snacking every hour, she eats fewer snacks now, she said. A nutritionist she talked to at UCLA also told her that fish oil is supposed to make her happier, but so far she has not noticed a difference.
“You just keep taking them once you fall into a routine,” Chung said. “I’m still kind of weak, to be honest. But the vitamin gummy bears are really good for a sweet tooth.”
The benefits of dietary supplements have been a subject of debate in the medical community as well.
“Annals of Internal Medicine” wrote in its December 2013 editorial that “sales of multivitamins and other supplements have not been affected by major studies with null results, and the U.S. supplement industry continues to grow, reaching $28 billion in annual sales in 2010.”
The publication, published by The American College of Physicians, added that “evidence is sufficient to advise against routine supplementation, and we should translate null and negative findings into action. The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified and they should be avoided.”
There is also a risk of overdose when it comes to fat-soluble vitamins like A and D. The National Academy of Sciences has established upper limits of intake, recommending amounts of some vitamins and minerals that should not be exceeded during any given day. False claims, such as “cure-all” and “no side effect” claims, are also something consumers should watch out for, according to the FDA.
Werner said that although the benefits of supplements and overdosing are not always clear, it is probably better to take vitamins than not to take them, considering vitamins’ importance as coenzymes in many biological processes.
“Since my wife takes them, and she’s on my case to take them, I take them,” he said. “When I was dealing with the chemo, I decided that every little thing probably helps, and I’ve continued with them. Also, at my age it’s probably a better idea to do something like that.”