Will vitamin pills help?
Not only do they not provide what nutrients you’re missing, it’s easy to overdose.
Myth: “My vitamins will fill the gaps in my diet and prevent disease.”
A chart of nutrients in your vitamins doesn’t tell the whole story. Vitamins are important, but the kind usable by the human body comes in food, in the synergistic and complex amounts found in nature.
I used to take a very expensive, highly touted comprehensive supplement. At the same time, I used Diet Power software to log my food intake for several months. The software analyzed the amounts I needed of each nutrient (for my age and gender) compared to my actual consumption of food.
It assigned a letter grade for how well I was doing, nutritionally. I got an “A” virtually every day based on my diet. If I took the supplements, twice as recommended, my score went to an “F” as soon as I logged them! I was getting much more than I needed of many nutrients. Even taking the supplement once a day was far too much in at least some areas, much of the time–if I took it only once a day, I got a “C.” I haven’t popped a vitamin in 10 years, and my health has never been better.
I met a doctor recently who told me of doing surgeries and finding large masses of undigested supplements bulging in the digestive tract. Another lady I met teaching a class in Texas had just been hospitalized for Vitamin D overdose (she was taking 7000 IU daily plus getting in the sun.)
This year a government study of 300,000 men found that taking more than one multivitamin a day doubled a man’s risk of dying from prostate cancer. One of the researchers, Dr. Christian Gluud, said, “The findings lend further credence to the possibility of harm associated with increased use of supplements.” People eating refined foods from boxes, bags, and cans may have an even bigger overdose of chemical vitamins and minerals because of “fortified” and “enriched” synthetic additives.
One hundred years ago, diseases like scurvy (related to a Vita C deficiency) introduced high Vita C recommendations from the government and an eventual market for synthetic, pill-form nutrients. Now that we no longer have sailors stuck on a ship for nine months straight with a nutritionally deficient food supply, we have the strange after-effects of those circumstances. Even with our terrible diet, we have virtually no Vita C- or iron-deficiency diseases in the first world. What we do have is a nation of pill poppers hoping (against evidence) that taking pretty random amounts of isolated, synthetic nutrients will save them from disease.
I believe that certain supplements may be necessary in specific instances. Like the sailors in 1830 who didn’t get any Vitamin C, many people do not get Vitamin D from the sun, which may be our most important protection from cancer, according to a growing number of studies showing that people near the Equator have the lowest incidence of cancer. (However, 5,000 IU of D3 is plenty if you are not in the sun regularly.)
A 2000 study of 170,000 people published in the medical journal The Lancet found that vitamin supplements do no good against six types of cancer or any other disease (including heart disease and stroke). In fact, a statistically small correlation was noted that those taking supplements had 6% higher morbidity than those taking dummy pills. While this study is not conclusive that people are dying from supplement use, it should at least give pill poppers pause.
Keep in mind, on the other hand, that hundreds of studies link whole foods, rich in those same vitamins, to much lower risk of those same diseases.
The Institute of Medicine, after conducting a four-year review into the massive body of research on vitamin supplements, recommended a diet of at least 5 fruits and vegetables instead. (GreenSmoothieGirl reminds you that even a pint of green smoothie daily gives you 100% of that recommendation.) The researchers said that while 40% of Americans fall below minimum nutrition thresholds, others are likely being harmed by supplements.
Vitamin Pill Dangers
Specifically, an excess of Vitamin A constitutes “vitamin danger” because it can cause birth defects in pregnant women and liver damage for others. Vita E can cause uncontrolled bleeding. An excess of Vita C can cause diarrhea. Minerals antagonize each other for absorption: zinc competes with iron, which competes with calcium. Unadulterated plant food, rather than pills, has the correct balances of nutrients along with plenty of fiber to help control the rate of absorption.
A 13-year study of over 10,000 Americans found no evidence of increased longevity among vitamin and mineral supplement users. And consider that most people who take supplements are nonsmokers who don’t drink heavily and eat more fruits and veggies than the larger population. (This study also found that supplements did not increase the longevity of smokers, heavy drinkers, and those with diseases.)
Seventy percent of Americans spend $6.5 billion annually on supplements, and a five-year study at Oxford of more than 20,000 people yielded this verdict in 2002: “Over five years we saw absolutely no effect” of supplements on heart disease, cancer, cataracts, bone fractures, asthma and mental decline.
I wonder if that $6.5 billion would be better spent on raw, organic vegetables and fruits than consulting a vitamin benefit chart and swallowing Flintstones or One-a-Day vitamins. I also wonder if taking supplements for compounds we SHOULD be getting from food is only slightly better than taking even worse pills—the pharmaceutical kind.
Vitamin pill popping is still magical thinking, while generally considered less risky than taking drugs. We should quit hoping that a cure exists in a pill, because they are insurance against nothing and may give us a false sense of security. You cannot take a nutrient found in food, operating synergistically with many other nutrients, and isolate it, make it a chemical compound with some animal products (gelatin capsules) and rocks (inorganic binders) holding it all together, and expect it to create health.
Fact: Eat nutritious food, not vitamins. If you want Vitamin C, eat a handful of strawberries. If you want Vitamin E, eat a handful of almonds. If you want the best package of synergistic minerals with Vita A, I recommend green smoothies. People seeking a magic bullet in a pill delude themselves, because it does not exist.