Should You Supplement Vitamins?

An orange, which contains vitamin C, sitting on a cutting board.

It is better to absorb vitamins and minerals from natural foods.

As I was growing up, my parents taught me that taking your vitamins was an important part of a balanced, healthy life. But as I grew up I began to question whether or not I should supplement vitamins.

The alternative is to eat the correct amount and proportions of different food stuffs to supply your body with the recommended daily value of nutrients-or, rather the ratios and quantities of nutrients that you require depending on your size and lifestyle. Who wants to do all that work when you can just swallow a pill? Or even better, chew on a block of sugar shaped like your favorite cartoon character.

I would like to briefly address the mentality presented in the preceding paragraph. If you can acquire your nutrients through food, you should always take that route. I firmly believe that you should avoid artificial methods of correcting health issues whenever possible.

But are supplemental vitamins helpful? Does a vitamin a day keep you healthy to play? Before we answer that question, we should first unpack how vitamins work.

What are Vitamins?

Vitamins are small molecules that our bodies use to carry out chemical reactions in our cells. Our bodies cannot make vitamins themselves, so we need to eat food that contains these important molecules.

60 years ago, the first multivitamin became available on the American market. A multi vitamin is a pill that contains at least 10 vitamins and 10 minerals to supplement our diet. Millions of adults and children consume these pills every day, spending $12 billion a year on them.

If you don't have the time/resources to prepare fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains every day, you may take a multivitamin to make up the difference. Several recent studies show that there are negative effects associated with the consumption of multivitamins.

The Dangers of Vitamins

For instance, less than half the multivitamins sold in the United States and Canada contain what their labels outline. Sometimes, they have too much of a supplement. Analysts discovered that a particular children's vitamin had 216% of the amount of vitamin A listed.

Mislabeled multivitamins are not the most concerning issue that prevalent throughout the supplement market. Some experts believe we do not gain benefits from vitamins unless we absorb them into our body along with the other compounds found in their natural form. In other words, isolated molecules do not deliver the same benefits as the same vitamin in conjunction with a spectrum of synergistic nutrients.

For example: maybe Vitamin C does not work unless you digest it with the other nutrients contained in an orange. In addition, the results of supplement research are difficult to (a) understand (b) because we have different bodies and chemical make ups and (c) because each of us consumes a broad variety of foods that can either help or hinder the absorption of vitamins.

You should know that the Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to put supplements through the high levels of scrutiny for safety and efficacy testing that it does for medicine or drugs. For all intents and purposes, supplements are put in the same category as food.

Should you supplement vitamins?

A silver spoon with salt on a pink background.

Vitamins vs Minerals

Vitamins are essential, organic, (non-mineral) molecules required by the body as nutrients, while minerals are single elements, 16 of which are essential to the human body.

The more we investigate multivitamins, the more we understand that they have no substantial health benefits. Or, if they do offer some sort of service that their benefits are too small to make a noticeable difference in your life.

Let us use folic acid to exemplify the process by which this process plays out. This is one of those supplements that huge numbers of people thought would protect their heart and prevent cancer. Based on a 2008 study run by Harvard scientists, we now understand that too much folic acid may promote prostate and colorectal cancer.

Because food companies add folic acid to grain products, most of us are already absorbing our daily requirements. Like we said before, it is not clear that added vitamins will have the same effects as naturally occurring nutrients.

Vitamin C

What about Vitamin C? You know, the nutrient we are supposed to take when we get sick? If you eat foods rich in Vitamin C, you lower your risk of heart disease and cancer, but if you take it in pill form, there seem to be no benefits.

Vitamin E

Another vitamin we believed prevented heart disease and cancer is Vitamin E. But again, the benefits only appear in test subjects when the nutrient is in its natural form. You can absorb Vitamin E from seeds and vegetable oils. When you absorb it from these sources you can strengthen your immune system. There is no evidence that supplemental Vitamin E provides any of its natural benefits.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A presents a very similar case. Unfortunately, it does not prevent lung cancer as advertised. In fact, large doses increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Most of us are already getting plenty of Vitamin A in eggs, whole milk, dark, leafy veggies, and orange or yellow fruits.

The Vitamin B-Complex

Scientists thought B Vitamins helped people prevent Alzheimer's Disease. More commonly, a lot of people believed that they raised your energy levels. But the trial results have been disappointing and provided no real evidence they do either.

B12 is one vitamin that you can help supplement an unbalanced diet. It is very beneficial for strict vegetarians who aren't getting the nutrients they need from animal-derived food.

But otherwise, you don't need to supplement B12 unless you're pregnant or facing macular degeneration from old age.

Vitamin D

Let us look at Vitamin D, a nutrient we normally produce while in sunlight. There is still hope it can help with osteoporosis, but the data is inconclusive since everyone gets different amounts of sun exposure. If you are already getting a decent amount of mid-day sun exposure and consume foods like fatty fish, eggs, and fortified dairy products, you don't need a vitamin D supplement.

Conclusion

Someday in the distant future, we may be able to pop a pill tailored to our nutrition. As it stands today, your best bet is to eat a balanced diet filled with rich, nutritious foods.

This does not mean you should run home and pour all your multivitamins down the toilet. Just do a little research on what your body needs and whether the pill you're taking is necessary.

With so much evidence stacked against vitamin supplements why do you think they are so popular?