Feature Archive

The Supplement Frenzy

Which ones work?

WebMD Feature

Aug. 21, 2000 -- For years, I've listened to friends, friends of friends, and even complete strangers talk enthusiastically about the supplements they take. They're not touting just run-of-the-mill multivitamins, but big doses of the so-called antioxidants like vitamins A, C, E, and beta-carotene. They swallow these pills by the handful, hoping to undo the damage from too many cheeseburgers, slow down the aging process, and maybe even prevent disease. And they chide me because I'm not on this shortcut-to-good-health bandwagon.

Antioxidants, they're fond of telling me, neutralize free radicals, those pesky unstable oxygen molecules that -- left to run amok -- can damage cells and perhaps lead to cancer, heart disease, and other ailments. The supplement fans do acknowledge that antioxidants can be found in fruits and vegetables. But, they say, why settle for the relatively small quantities in food when you can get so much more by swallowing a few pills?

I've long been skeptical of these claims, wary of taking a pill to get nutrients already available to me in oranges, broccoli, and the like. But lately I've wondered: Is a nutritious diet really enough, or should I follow my friends' advice and take large doses of supplements? Government experts, interestingly enough, recently cast their vote for food and against pills. But their position has left as many questions as answers, and consumers like me are still confused.