Will Taking Vitamins Improve Your Health?

It’s a hotly debated question among health researchers. New studies come out every year but we don’t seem to be getting any closer to a definitive answer. About half the studies show that people who take vitamins are healthier and the other half find that taking vitamins makes no difference…or, in a few cases, actually make things worse. I have to admit that I’ve held, at various times in my career, different views on the question.

(See also this Nutrition Diva podcast episode on Multivitamins.)

We know that the nutrients in food play important roles in keeping us healthy. Calcium helps prevent osteoporosis, folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects, antioxidants repair cellular damage, and so on down an ever expanding list of nutrients and co-factors. It seems like supplementing an (imperfect) diet with additional nutrients is a reasonable way to make sure we’ve got our bases covered.

If we’re talking about a 25¢ one-a-day multivitamin, I guess the vitamin as insurance policy makes sense. But it’s gotten way more complicated than that. For one thing, the list of “basic” nutrients gets longer and longer. A multivitamin used to involve 15 or so nutrients (A, B, C, D, E, and a few minerals.) Now, a typical multi boasts several dozen compounds, from astaxanthan to vanadium. But it’s still not truly complete. Next to it on the shelf you’ll find the anti-oxidant booster, the bone health formula, the immune booster, plus the the formulas for your eyes, skin, nails, hair, memory, joints, and prostate. Before you know it, you’re forking out a couple hundred bucks and month and swallowing a fistful of vitamins every day. But are you getting your money’s worth?

In search of the perfect delivery system

Supplement companies are constantly reformulating their products to be “closer to nature.” Nature, of course, does not deliver nutrients as isolated chemicals, but in complex matrixes of nutrient fractions and co-factors that we have only begun to decode. Carrots, for example, are high in beta-carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A. But, researchers discovered that adding beta-carotene supplements to the diet does not seem to produce the same benefits as eating more carrots. Eventually, they discovered that carrots also contain other carotenoids like alpha-carotene and lutein, which work in concert with beta-carotene to promote health.

So now you see multl-vitamin formulas boasting “mixed carotenoids” instead of just beta-carotene. Manufacturers are quick to stuff new compounds into their formulas (and hike the price) as fast researchers discover them, but even as the list of ingredients grows, there are still hundreds of nutrients yet to be discovered. Some vitamin makers are now adding powdered food extracts to supplements in an effort not to leave anything to chance.

But there’s already a perfect delivery mechanism for nutrients. It’s called food. Consider the benefits of an actual carrot: beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and lutein (plus countless compounds we haven’t yet discovered), all present in the perfect proportions and most absorbable forms. Plus a naturally sweet taste, a pleasantly crunchy texture, and some soluble fiber that takes the edge off of your hunger. Now that’s a good delivery system!

The Challenge

Now consider what would happen if you actually tried to get all of the nutrients you needed solely from (unfortified) foods. In order to get enough of all the vitamins and minerals and fiber you need, you’d have to eat several kinds of fruits and vegetables, every single day. You’d have to choose foods that are high in calcium, folic acid, vitamin K, iron, vitamin C and essential fatty acids.

I actually tried this as an experiment–and it’s something I highly recommend. (Below, I’ve included a couple of tips and resources for how to do it.) Here’s what I learned: When I challenged myself to meet my nutritional requirements through foods alone, instead of relying on a handful of vitamins to cover my various dietary sins, I chose my foods much more carefully during the day. My diet was far more balanced and varied. I enjoyed my food infinitely more. And, maybe the biggest thing was that, because I was eating so many more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, I ate a lot less junk. And I didn’t really miss it. (I also ate fewer calories–and didn’t miss them either.)

So here’s your homework assignment. Challenge yourself to eat in such a way that you are getting 100% of your daily nutrient requirements from food alone. The easiest way to do this is with the free nutrition analysis tools at a site called NutritionData.com. You can enter in the foods you eat each day and generate a report containing a complete nutritional analysis of that day’s foods.

The report will tell you how much of each nutrient you should be getting every day–and how much you actually are getting. Your goal is to hit 100% of every nutrient. It’s actually kind of fun! If you log as you go through the day, your running total will pinpoint which nutrients you need more of, and even provide a list of foods high in those nutrients. (The Quickstart and Help pages will show you how the various tools work.)

Logging everything you eat is a little time-consuming. But you don’t have to do it forever. Because after just a few days, you get a much more realistic sense of what it actually takes to get the nutrition you need from real food. And you get used to thinking about your food choices in different ways.

So, to come back to the question I started this article with: Can taking vitamins improve your health? The more I think about it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that while vitamin supplements may have a place in a healthy lifestyle (I still take a basic multi-vitamin, calcium, and fish oil), they are relatively minor players.

For our nutrition, I think we need to rely first and foremost on food, not pills. And I mean real food–the kind without bar codes. In addition to being the ideal nutritional delivery systems, whole foods offer us the opportunity to cook, to create, to share all the sensory the pleasures of a meal with our friends and loved ones. Try that with a handful of vitamins!

For more information: NutritionData.com

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