As a proponent of natural health, I am frequently asked what vitamin supplements I recommend. I think the common (mis)conception is that vitamin supplementation is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Like most other topics on health, there are arguments in both directions, but it seems that most of the arguments for supplementation are fueled by the supplement industry itself. Many healthcare professionals and natural health practitioners actually agree on this issue: vitamin supplementation not only appears to be minimally beneficial, it is often detrimental to our health.
Before I go much further in explaining why you shouldn’t need vitamin supplements and attempting to dispel the widely held notion that vitamin supplementation is good for you, I would like to acknowledge that sometimes there is a valid need for supplementation, particularly on a short term basis when a deficiency has been identified and confirmed. However, most people take vitamins as a preventative measure because we’ve been told it’s the thing to do, not because we have established a valid need. There is much research that this “preventative” measure is useless at best and harmful at worst. So I am suggesting that you take the time to consider your reasons and the evidence in deciding if supplementation is necessary for you rather than blindly following the lemmings who have gone before you and throwing your vitamins down the hatch ;).
It was back in the early 20th century that the theory of vitamin supplementation for health started to develop. Researchers studying the chemical makeup of foods noted that there were certain “special factors” (i.e., vitamins and minerals) that influenced certain areas of health. By isolating the special factors, it was thought that optimal nutrition could be easily achieved. Whether it was the original intention or not, many people today have latched on to the idea that supplementing the diet is a necessary and healthy way to make sure they are getting the nutrients they need regardless of the way they eat. Vitamins and minerals are essential for life, but consuming an isolated, chemical reproduction of what we ought to be getting from our food will never be the same as living a healthy lifestyle, which includes eating a well-balanced, unprocessed, whole foods diet.
Plant foods are our natural, God-given source of micro-nutrients (a.k.a. vitamins & minerals). I’ve never read any reports of consumption of fruits and vegetables leading to health problems (with the exception of course of any allergies/food intolerances). The nutrients they offer are perfectly balanced with safe, absorbable quantities and proper ratios of the nutrients provided. Proper absorption and bio-availability of vitamins/minerals naturally available from whole foods is unsurpassed by any scientific approach to recreate the nutrients in a pill. Supplements designed to mimic the “special factors” of whole food can cause problems as a result of the way they are made, from over-consumption, particularly minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, and from consumption in unbalanced quantities.
how supplements are made.
Research in the Physician’s Desk Reference indicates that on average only 10-20% of the nutrients in solid vitamins are absorbed by the body. Most supplements are synthetically made and contain inorganic elements, binders, and fillers that the body does not recognize and cannot break down. These components either pass right through the system, carrying the so-called nutrients with them, or they get stored in and around our cells, leading to toxicity and other various health problems. Supplements are also loosely regulated by the FDA, so contamination of the contents is not uncommon and viability of the product is not guaranteed. Real food also comes with unknown factors, but while the unknowns and extras in supplements are detrimental, the unknowns in real food appear to be what makes the nutrients effective and what makes recreating the nutrients impossible for modern science.
I’m sure most people haven’t given much thought to how vital nutrients are smashed into a little pill, but rest assured, you can’t squeeze an orange really hard and end up with a fruity tasting chewable supplement. As an example of the process of producing supplements, let’s take a look at vitamin C. Food naturally containing what is labeled vitamin C includes two ascorbate forms as well as bioflavonoids and phytonutrients that are difficult to identify and reproduce. Vitamin C in supplement form is typically composed of just one of those components: ascorbic acid. A common method of production of ascorbic acid is through fermenting corn sugar into sorbitol, hydrogenating it until it turns into sorbose, then adding acetone (yes, that’s the main ingredient in nail polish remover – yummy) to break molecular bonds to create isolated, crystalline, ascorbic acid. Chemically, one part of the naturally occurring vitamin has been achieved, but even if you are OK with the source and method of its production, it does not contain all of the elements of vitamin C as it exists in nature and as such seems too incomplete to accurately be called vitamin C.
the problem with over-consumption.
Supplementing with minerals and fat-soluble vitamins in particular is dangerous due to the propensity to accumulate in body tissue and blood. Naturally occurring, these vitamins/minerals are essential for life and beneficial for the issues indicated on the bottles of their non-natural counterparts. Consuming quantities of foods containing these nutrients sufficient to reach a level of toxicity appears to be impossible. Not the case with supplementation. Vitamin E supplementation has been associated with higher rates of prostate cancer. Vitamin D and Calcium supplementation have both been associated with increased coronary heart disease. Supplemental oils claiming to contain omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to raise bad cholesterol and cause other damage. Excess vitamin A can cause liver and bone damage. The list goes on, but I’m sure you get the point.
the problem with unbalanced quantities.
Minerals in particular must be properly balanced within the body. Any imbalances are corrected by the body by pulling the necessary mineral from other healthy tissue. As an example, if the balance of calcium & magnesium intake is off, our bodies will make up the imbalance by pulling the minerals from the bones. Obviously it follows that improperly balanced supplementation leads to negative health effects. In the case of calcium supplementation, the possible negative effects (deteriorating bone health) are those that supplementing was intended to improve. Hmmm…not sure how that’s going to help as a long term solution.
how to get the vitamins and minerals you need.
The invention of supplementation was a valiant effort by the scientific pharmaceutical world to simplify nutrition, but a diet rich in pop-tarts and fast food hamburgers will never be fixed by popping a pill. But don’t despair, proper nutrition really is simple. Fuel your body with real food: unprocessed, plant-based, whole foods. End of story.
Need some recipes to get you started on the road to health? Check out the dynamic list of recipes posted to this site in the know your food series.
For a quick shot of fresh fruits and the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that come with them, try this recipe for all fruit berry smoothies.