Distribution Source: iTunesU
Content Source: University of California TV (UCTV)
Length: 2 hours 52 minutes
I've wondered for a long time about vitamins, minerals and supplements. Grocery stores and pharmacies have rows and rows of bottles of VM&S, all of which implicitly or explicitly suggest some health benefit. Fish oil - good for your heart, calcium - good for your bones, vitamin C - keeps away colds. You name an ailment and one of those tinted bottles has the preventative solution. Obviously, there are rows and rows of these bottles for a reason. The biggest reason of course is that people buy them. But why? Are the health benefits real? Or are these wonder pills just another example of America's failed have-everything-for-free approach to life?
I'll start with what VM&S I currently take, and will end with how this might change going forward. Prior to this week's research, each day I took one multi-vitamin, one vitamin C pill, one calcium pill and at least one Omega 3 fish oil supplement. The vitamins I never gave much thought to, the calcium I take because unfortunately I became lactose intolerant in college (making drinking milk less straightforward than I'd like it to be), and the fish oil I began taking recently because I heard a few smart people say it's probably the right thing to do.
So what did the experts I listened to say about the subject? There are two very straightforward and uniform themes. First, absolutely nothing can replace a healthy, diverse diet consisting of in my case 2.5-3.5 cups of fruits and vegetables per day (click here to determine how much you need). Why not? In spite of recent advancements in science, it is still not known how all of the components of your nutritional intake react to each other, and to your body. Thanks to many studies it is known, however, that simply isolating the compounds found in foods (e.g. vitamin C) and taking a dose or pill of these underlying compounds does not offer the same health benefit as the food itself. In fact, the isolation of these compounds has in many cases shown net negative health benefits! The second theme is that each person is very different; nutrition needs vary greatly from age to sex to health conditions to genetics. In other words, you can't just say "this is the best regiment, take x,y and z."
So we clearly have a scientifically confusing and complex assessment to make. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that unlike other drugs, vitamins, minerals and supplements do not have to be tested before being sold. There are not requirements that guarantee safety, purity or effectiveness. The FDA is only now implementing regulations concerning the quality of manufacturing. While these regulations will force companies to keep records of their manufacturing process, the actual quality of the product will remain unverified, at least by the government. If you really care about what you're putting into your body you can pay the ~$30 yearly subscription to consumerlab.com, a site that independently tests the composition of various brands of VM&S.
So let's assume that we can vouch for the safety of these products. Why are they so important (either in pill form or through a healthy diet)? Vitamins serve as co-factors in many essential reactions that occur in our cells. Our bodies need them to function. And even though vitamins are needed only in small amounts, if there is a deficiency the required reactions literally will not happen. One only needs to read the history of pirates to learn about scurvy, one of the many ailments that could result from a vitamin deficiency.
While I listened to almost three painful hours of lectures on the specifics of each type of vitamin, mineral and supplement, I will summarize only those that stuck out as particularly meaningful or those for which scientific clarity exists. The scientific research is clear that free-radicals (molecules with an extra electron) are basically bad and can lead to many types of cancer and make you age prematurely. It is also clear that antioxidants neutralize free-radicals. If you don't like spinach or tea (which I of course love), vitamin C is an antioxidant rich option. While there is no research to support the theory that vitamin C prevents colds, it is crucial to producing collagen (the main protein of connective tissue). The other uniformly praised vitamin was vitamin D3. New studies show that vitamin D's benefits and necessity may extend to all major organs in the body. It has also been proven to be helpful in fighting many forms of cancer. Surprisingly, almost one billion people worldwide are estimated to be vitamin D deficient, in large part due to our fear of sun exposure. The sun triggers a reaction in our skin that allows the body to naturally produce vitamin D. But because we now wear sunscreen and in many cases work and live indoors, many of us are simply not creating the levels of vitamin D required for proper health. Taking a daily vitamin D3 pill can solve this problem. Finally, calcium has been shown to help with blood pressure, hormones, bone strength, and hypertension. Both of the experts took calcium and recommended others do the same, ideally calcium carbonate as opposed to citrate. As for the other vitamins, among them A and E, and minerals (iron and magnesium), the studies were either inconclusive or the benefits were useful only to a specific age or health subset of the population.
It is extremely important to note that taking too high a dose of just about any of these substances is bad for your health. This is particularly true for the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D & E) which can be stored in body fat for some time, as opposed to the water soluble vitamins (like vitamin C) which you will likely dispose of naturally. It is surprisingly easy to overdose on VM&S; one way to prevent this is to visit the NIH's website, where you can find intake guidelines, data and FAQ on most VM&S.
Going forward I will be taking the same assortment of pills described above, but will be adding one crucial vitamin: D3. It has proven health benefits and no major risk-factors. I was on the fence about continuing to take the multi-vitamin until one of the experts recommended it as a vitamin "safety net", but not your primary source of daily vitamins. My conclusion is that taking a select few vitamins, minerals and supplements makes sense. But it is important to understand and respect the potential downsides - mixing these pills with prescription drugs can be harmful. As previously mentioned, taking more than the recommended allowance is a bad idea as well. And finally, I've learned that the science is not only inconclusive in many cases, but it's also changing rapidly. So if you can stick to it (and I can't), the safest bet is to follow the advice of Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma: "Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants."