“Let food be thy medicine”– Hippocrates
More than half of U.S. adults blindly take vitamins daily. Do you know what you are actually putting in your body? Probably not. Are you wasting your money? Maybe. Most consumers aren’t aware that the supplement industry is not regulated by the USDA or any other governmental organization. The government does not check supplements for content, safety or efficacy. A study by the International Olympic Committee conducted in 2002 showed 18.8% of the 240 supplements purchased in the USA contained illegal steroids! Other have been known to contain the same or similar active ingredients as prescription drugs, such as Viagra, Cialis, and even banned weight loss drugs like Meridia. The kicker is anyone, even your kids, can go into any vitamin store and unknowingly buy this stuff laced with illegal (unlisted) ingredients. We really have no idea what’s inside them. In fact if your unsavory neighbor (or you) would like to start their own vitamin/supplement business out of their dirty kitchen, it is as easy as pie:
From the movie “Bigger, Stronger, Faster”
Vitamin supplements are simply nutrients and minerals taken out of their native state and sold in an isolated condition. Many of these nutrients have been discovered to be helpful for human health but when taken from it’s natural state it can be harmful. Micheal Pollen NY Times writer and author of “In Defense of Food” gives a great example this:
“Carrots are good for you, right? People have been eating them for a long time and the assumption was that what was good in cancer preventing in the carrot was the beta carotene. What makes it orange. So we extracted that and we made these supplement pills and we gave them to people and low and behold in certain populations like people who drink a lot would get sicker, were more likely to get cancer on beta carotene and the scientists kind of scratched their head. There is a couple of explanations. We don’t know. But one may be that the beta carotene is not the key ingredient. You know there are 50 other carotenes in carrots. Food is incredibly complex. It’s a wilderness, you know, we don’t know what’s going on deep in the soul of a carrot. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves to think we can reduce it to these chemicals. It also may be some synergies between different thing. Beta carotene is also found in the company of chlorophyll, maybe it’s that combination that contributes to health. The point is we don’t, as eaters, need to know what makes carrots work. We can eat carrots, they taste good, they’re good for you. It’s that simple.”
Scientific evidence for vitamin supplement effectiveness is anything but solid. Many people take vitamins as insurance. This may be faulty thinking and may actually cause harm. High doses of certain vitamins and minerals may actually cause disease not prevent it. Many of the foods we eat are already fortified with vitamins and taking more can cause imbalances which may make you less healthy and more prone to disease. Furthermore most vitamins and minerals found in food seem to be more bio-available then their manufactured pill counterparts. There are certain populations that require vitamins due to special needs like vegans, very low calorie dieters, pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, some people with digestive disorders and people suffering from particular diseases. The rest of us are better off getting our vitamins from the foods we eat.
However, there are a few supplements that have stood under the microscope of time and science and through unbiased peer reviewed research proven themselves to be safe and effective. Here is a list of vitamin supplements that have been shown in large randomized placebo controlled human trials to produce tangible benefits:
- Folic Acid – prevents some birth defects
- Fish Oils/Omega-3’s – help prevent heart disease
- Melatonin – helps insomnia
- Niacin – helps prevent heart disease
- Vitamin D – decreases mortality in adults (the long term research on this one is lacking)
There are a smattering of objective companies that test the quality, ingredients and dangers of most commercially sold vitamins and nutritional products. My favorite independent testing lab is Consumerlab.com. This fee based company investigates topics like how many contaminates are in the differing fish oil brands, which coconut water is best for re-hydration, how much calcium is actually in your calcium supplement, comparing one vitamin brand to another etc. If you decide to take vitamins, you should know what you are putting into your body and what you are actually paying for. The USP.org is another organization that certifies and tests supplements to make sure they:
- Contains the ingredients listed on the label, in the declared potency and amounts.
- Does not contain harmful levels of specified contaminants.
- Will break down and release into the body within a specified amount of time.
- Has been made according to FDA current Good Manufacturing Practices using sanitary and well-controlled procedures.
The human body is an extremely complex structure and changing one variable like adding a vitamin to your diet can have many positive and negative influences on your whole system. Modern medicine does not have the technology to fully comprehend the cascade of effects and full ramifications of what supplements/vitamins outside of their natural state do to us. Eat real food, drink a good amount of water and investigate what you are putting on and into your body, you’ll be healthier for it.
General Vitamin Rules:
- Don’t assume all vitamins are safe.
- Don’t believe the hype or so called scientific evidence that supplement ads tout – many of these purported results are paid for by the vitamin company and the before and after pictures are heavily Photoshopped.
- Vitamins are not substitutes for healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
- Multivitamins can be dangerous…don’t take one unless otherwise directed to by your dietician or doctor with a nutrition background.
- Find out if any of the vitamins you take effect the prescription medication you need. Ex: The herb St. John’s wort can interfere with oral contraceptives, seizure medication, blood thinners, and antidepressants.
- Don’t take a vitamin just because you learned about a new study promoting it’s benefits. Most nutritional studies are seriously flawed. For every one study claiming benefits of a certain supplement you can find a counter study.
If you are still not convinced, take a one month long vitamin vacation. Keep a log and track of your energy levels, sleep patterns, appetite, pain levels, body weight and overall mood. Is there any difference? If there is no discernible variation, you just might be wasting your hard earned dough. Or not. The placebo effect is one of the strongest non-medical non-treatments known to man. If you believe the inert vitamin is helping you, it just might.