The untold truth of vitamins

"PLEASE!" I was stopped in the vitamin aisle at the pharmacy as my 3-year-old begged and pleaded for the Disney princess vitamins that were conveniently placed right at her eye level. I studied the ingredients and threw them in the cart. Sure I had just given into a tantrum, but they were healthy, right? Actually, probably not.

For years, study after study has reported that we don't need vitamin supplements to be healthy. In fact, researchers continue to report that vitamins do not prevent disease, and in large doses, may actually do more harm than good. Half of Americans report taking a daily supplement, and as of the time of this writing, we spend more than 28 billion dollars on them a year. So why do we take them?

Sure, some people need a daily vitamin. A vitamin deficiency, not ingesting enough of a vital nutrient, absolutely leads to illness and chronic conditions. However, does a healthy person with a reasonably healthy diet need extra vitamins?

You already have enough

If you are eating a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins, you are most likely already getting the recommended amount of daily vitamins that your body needs. Even if you're not winning any awards for the healthiest diet, many processed foods like cereal and crackers are fortified with extra vitamins.

Most vitamin supplements contain 100 percent of the recommended daily amount, so if you're already consuming any fruit throughout the day, you are getting way more than the National Institutes of Health recommend.

More is not better

Okay, so maybe we don't need those extra vitamins, but what's the harm? If you feel like taking daily supplements makes you feel better, that's all the research you need, right? Unfortunately when it comes to vitamins, you really can have too much of a good thing.

According to the National Institutes of Health, a meta-analysis of studies looking at more than 400,000 people found that a daily vitamin supplement was associated with an increased cancer risk. A separate study of women found that a daily supplement was linked to an increased risk for skin cancer.

Vitamin C does not treat the common cold

If you walk down the cold remedies aisle at your local pharmacy, you might be shocked to learn that more than 15 scientific studies have concluded that vitamin C does not treat the common cold. How can that be when there are countless products claiming to protect you?

What about your friend who swears by vitamin C when she feels a cold coming on? The trouble with vitamin C supplements like Airborne is that they have never proven effective. In fact, makers of Airborne agreed to pay out $23.3 million to settle a false advertising claim. The Center for Science in the Public Interest agreed that there is no "credible evidence" that Airborne can prevent or treat the common cold.

Your eyes are just fine

Growing up, you probably heard your parents or teachers reminding you to eat your carrots to improve your eyesight. Carrots and other orange fruits and vegetables contain vitamin A, which is needed for healthy eyes and immune system. If you're not a fan of carrots, maybe you figure it's fine to just pop a vitamin A supplement, but it won't give you the same benefits.

Taking vitamin A supplements with beta-carotene has actually been proven to increase the risk of lung cancer in study participants. In one study, the increased risk was a whopping 28 percent, which caused the researchers to actually end the study early!

To protect those peepers, opt for natural sources of vitamin A, like carrots, sweet potatoes, and kale.

Got calcium?

We're willing to bet that every child growing up was told to drink their milk so they could grow up big and strong. We need calcium for bone health, so why not add in a calcium supplement? Women especially are told to focus on calcium, so much so that there are entire aisles at the grocery store full of gummy and chocolate-y calcium treats.

There's just one problem. Calcium supplements have not been proven to improve bone density. In fact, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that participants taking a daily calcium supplement were more likely to suffer a hip fracture.

To hit the recommended dose of daily calcium, go for nonfat dairy, tofu, or leafy greens.

Focus on real nutrition

One of the dangers with vitamin supplements is that they give us a false sense of security. Taking them makes us feel like we're doing something healthy for our body, so we don't need to pay attention to what we're eating. Pizza with extra pepperoni? Yes, please. I took my Flintstones today!

Of course with any supplement, there are groups of people who can and should take them for their health condition. For example, if you are pregnant or nursing, your doctor has most likely recommended a prenatal vitamin for the health of the baby. Check with your doc before making any changes to your regimen.

Where did this come from?

So why do so many people believe they need vitamin supplements? If every study is telling us they're ineffective at best, dangerous at worst, why do we continue to buy them? You can go ahead and blame Linus Pauling.

Pauling was a famous chemist, who in 1970, published a paper on the benefits of vitamin C. He even went so far as to recommend that the average person take a supplement of 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily, about 50 times the recommended daily amount. Even after his theories were disproved, Pauling continued to recommend huge doses of vitamin C to treat the common cold and cancer.

Yep, you read that right. Pauling believed taking vitamin C could both prevent and even cure cancer. He went on to claim that supplements could treat mental illness, hepatitis, even kidney failure. Every time a study proved his theories wrong and dangerous, he kept on touting the benefits of vitamin C up until 1994… when he died of cancer.