More than half of American adults take multivitamins regularly, hoping to prevent nutritional deficiencies and ward off disease.
Recent medical studies, however, are beginning to show that a daily multivitamin might be doing more harm than good, or have no effect at all. In March of 2009, ConsumerLab published a report showing that over 30% of commercial vitamin supplements were defective and potentially dangerous.
What Are The Risks?
For many years, doctors, nutritionists and the multi-billion dollar supplement industry has promoted the health benefits of popping a pill every day. Multivitamin pills are widely considered an “insurance policy” against nutritional deficiencies and associated disease. Now studies are showing that multivitamins have little or no effect, as was the case with an 8-year study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Other studies have linked certain doses of vitamins A, E, folic acid, selenium and antioxidant supplements with increased risk of cancers and other diseases. There is a mounting concern that over-consumption of certain vitamins and minerals may lead to disease, instead of prevent it. For more on these studies, click here.
There is also the ConsumerLab report that over 30% of multivitamins could be considered dangerous. They found that three of the four children’s vitamins had vitamin A levels than exceeded the tolerable upper limit established by the Institute of Medicine. Other multivitamins tested either had excessive levels of some vitamins, lower than claimed levels of others and a few even had small amounts of lead.
What’s In Your Multivitamin?
Vitamin supplements are a pharmaceutical product – a cocktail of lab-created chemical compounds mixed with binders, preservatives, gelatin, waxes and food colorings. Most are created to deliver 100% or more of the daily value of all known essential vitamins and minerals with no thought about how these nutrients interact.
Supplemental vitamins are toxic at high doses. Some vitamins are toxic in their isolated form but not toxic when consumed in whole foods where they are found in the right amounts along with hundreds of plant compounds that work in synergy. Multivitamins do not contain all of the other phytonutrients, fiber, fat, protein and chemical compounds that you would find in whole foods.
Whole Foods vs. The Pill
When did we get to the point where we need to rely on a pill to meet our nutritional needs? Wouldn’t it be better to get our nutrition from whole foods? The research is pointing back to whole foods as the best source of all essential vitamins and minerals. Scientists are constantly learning about new phytonutrients and what they do and how they interact. What these plant compounds do and how they work with other vitamins is largely unknown.
Multivitamin pills have similar levels of minerals which compete with each other for absorption. For example, zinc competes with iron which competes with calcium. You might think you are getting 100% of your daily value of nutrients, but you might be getting much less of competing minerals that cancel each other out. Whole foods have the right mix of vitamins and minerals in the right amounts as well as fiber to help regulate absorption.
Do You Really Need A Multivitamin To Be Healthy?
If you have a balanced, healthy diet, you probably do not need a multivitamin. In fact, the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the less you need a supplement. It is possible to get all your nutrition from food. That’s how every creature on the planet is nourished. Why would humans need to rely on pharmaceutical pills to be healthy? In fact, research shows that those who eat a plant-based diet with minimal animal protein (less than 5%), have a significantly lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular and other diseases than those who follow the standard American diet with vitamin supplements.
As long as you eat a varied diet, sufficient in calories with ample fruits and vegetables along with nuts and seeds, you’ll likely meet your nutritional needs without needing a “magic health pill”. A basic knowledge of what food sources contain which essential nutrients is all you really need to know to ensure you are meeting your nutritional requirements.
Find out which vitamin and mineral supplements I take and why.
Not All Supplements Are Bad
While a multivitamin will not compensate for a poor diet, there are certain individuals who can and do benefit from vitamin or mineral supplementation. Age or certain medical conditions could contribute to deficiencies in certain nutrients. Those who eat food grown in mineral-depleted soil could benefit as well. Vegans need vitamin B12 supplements.
Instead of taking a “nutrition insurance pill”, think of supplementation as a way of targeting specific nutritional needs. If you feel that your diet may be lacking in a certain nutrient, find whole foods that will fill the nutritional gap or seek out a high quality superfood or supplement that will help you meet your health goal.
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Tracy Russell is the creator of the Green Smoothie Health & Weight Loss Program and founder of Incredible Smoothies. She is passionate about helping people improve their health with green smoothies and a whole foods lifestyle.