Does anyone else find it ironic that food manufacturers work hard to remove all the good stuff from food so that we have to take vitamin and mineral supplements, powdered fiber and “enhanced” nutrition bars to replace them? I mean really – if we just ate a normal, healthy diet full of fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins and ditched the packaged white bread, Oreos, chips, fries and pretend meats we wouldn’t need to spend more than $20 billion (yes billion with a “B”) on vitamins, minerals, sports supplements and herbs yearly. I contribute to this dollar amount – I take a multivitamin (it gives me an excuse to eat gummy candy), ginkgo biloba, fish oil (I guess that violates veganism) and B-12. I have my reasons, and you probably do too – but are all these vitamins really necessary? Are they doing you any good? And, more importantly, are they possibly doing you harm?
My gut tells me that most people probably could use a general multivitamin. The average American diet is short on vegetables and whole grains and long on saturated fats, sugars and refined grains. The problem is that many of the pill-form vitamin, minerals, amino acids, etc. simply contribute to extra-expensive pee. Many of them are of poor quality and are not absorbed well, so your body excretes them.
The fact is: you absorb vitamins best from food — not franken foods — in which vitamins have been removed and put back in (think vitamin-enhanced water, enriched frosted cereals and waxy fruit snacks with 100 percent of your daily value for vitamin C) — but the real deal. Isolated vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants may not provide much benefit. Scientists cannot isolate all the factors that make a nutrient beneficial. They may need to react with the fiber, nutrients and other compounds in their original source to provide any health effect. These nutrients are undoubtedly valuable, but may only be so when eaten in their original form. Taking them in isolation may not have the same results.
A study in the September 5, 2006 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that “evidence is insufficient to prove the presence or absence of benefits from use of multivitamin and mineral supplements to prevent cancer and chronic disease.” A February 9, 2009 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine studied more than 160,000 participants and came to a similar conclusion, finding that after approximately 8 years, the use of a multivitamin has little to no influence on the risk of common cancers, cardiovascular disease or total mortality in postmenopausal women.
Evidence supports that there are benefits to taking certain herbs, vitamins and minerals for particular conditions. Evidence also shows that taking big doses of these supplements can be harmful. Take a report published in October by the Journal of the American Medical Association that noted vitamin E and selenium supplementation in 35,000 men slightly increased their risk of developing prostate cancer. A separate study published in 2011 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that among 38,000 women, those who took multivitamins and other supplements had a higher risk of dying over a 19-year period.
So what’s a girl, or a guy, to do? Should we continue to swallow the multi-vites, the fish oil, the herbs, the amino acids? I wish I had the answer.
I think a lot of it comes down to our wishing for a quick fix: swallow a pill and it will make up for eating crud and not exercising. You can’t take vitamins and minerals to replace real food. What you can do is take a supplement to help round out a diet that might be insufficient in some way, despite your attempts to eat as well as you can. You might also take a supplement under the direction of a knowledgeable health care provider – that doesn’t always mean your doctor. A chiropractor, alternative medicine practitioner or a homeopath are all good people to consult. For every study that shows a benefit to a certain supplement, there is usually an alternative one that shows otherwise. Provided it isn’t harmful, if you find something works for you or you think it works for you (I’m all for the placebo effect), then go for it.