The idea that vitamin, mineral and amino acid supplements can help defend against diseases such as AIDS by strengthening the immune system is "completely without medical foundation," according to health quackery expert Dr. Stephen Barrett.
"There is no evidence that adequately nourished individuals will increase immunity by taking supplements," said Barrett, board chairman of the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud in Allentown, Pa. "People who take supplements for this reason are wasting their money."
U.S. Food and Drug Administration studies show that more than 40% of the population takes vitamin supplements daily, supporting the $3 billion supplement industry. Of that group, 11% take more than five pills per day.
Barrett explained that the majority of Americans are sufficiently nourished to have a complete storehouse of all the basic nutrients to maintain the immune system.
"Promoters of this kind of misinformation would have us believe that large numbers of Americans are being stripped of their ability to resist infections because of weakened immune systems," Barrett said. "This is simply not true."
Barrett noted that in the case of AIDS, which is a virus transmitted through bodily fluids, the best protection is to avoid sexual contact with someone who is infected.
Barrett suggests that those who are worried about getting adequate vitamins and minerals evaluate their diets to be sure they are getting a variety of foods from the four food groups: milk and dairy products, meats, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals. If this is difficult, ask a doctor or a registered dietitian for help.
Some special groups who may need supplements are children younger than 2, especially if they have poor eating habits, some people on prolonged weight reduction programs, pregnant women, strict vegetarians and people with certain illnesses who are diagnosed by a doctor as needing supplements.
Barrett also said that supplement users should never exceed 100% of the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for any one nutrient, and to choose a multivitamin-mineral supplement if a supplement is necessary.