Episode 28: January 28, 2009
Know your Nutrients
Ask the Diva?
by Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N.
My name is Paige and I’m calling to ask you about multi-vitamins. I have heard many different stories about the health benefits of multi-vitamins. Some say they all do the same thing and it doesn’t matter which one you take. Others say certain vitamins could harm me more than they help and that I need to be very careful about the combination of vitamins I take and the dosages. I’m hoping you can clear up the multivitamin dilemma. Thanks very much for taking my call and I hope to hear about this soon.
Thanks for your question, Paige. You can get a basic one-a-day multi that provides the recommended daily intake of most of the essential nutrients for a few cents a day. And, if your diet is typical of most Americans, it might not be a bad idea.
Vitamin deficiencies can cause serious problems. Not enough vitamin C can cause scurvy, for example. Vitamin D deficiency leads to rickets. Too little thiamine in your diet, and you’ll end up with beriberi. Pellagra is caused by niacin deficiency. Now if berberi and pellagra sound more like the latest dance moves than serious medical problems, it’s because these sorts of nutrient deficiencies are pretty rare in Western countries.
But there’s a big difference between getting enough nutrients to avoid malnutrition and being well-nourished. In fact, data collected in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey suggest that Americans are falling well short of the recommended intake of many nutrients.
Less than one in five Americans gets the recommended amount of vitamin E, for example. Only about one in four get enough potassium, and fewer than half of us are getting the recommended amount of vitamin A or calcium. Although we may not be dropping dead of scurvy any more, these inadequacies may set us up for heart disease, osteoporosis, and other degenerative diseases.
Of course, it’s possible to get all the nutrition you need without resorting to supplements. But you’d need to eat a balanced diet of healthy foods and there wouldn’t be a whole lot of room for empty calories. Few of us can pull this off consistently. A basic multivitamin is an easy and inexpensive way to cover the gaps—and it doesn’t matter a whole lot which one you choose. Keep in mind, however, that a standard multi won’t contain more than a tiny bit of calcium, so you might still need to take that separately.
Sometimes, Less is More
But what about those super-duper formulas that go way beyond a basic multi? They can provide many times the recommended intake of every nutrient you’ve ever heard of…and plenty you haven’t. If you’re really looking to amp up your health, maybe one of these is a good idea?
Well, Paige, once you go beyond the basic multi, you’re more likely to run into the sort of problems you alluded to in your call. For one thing, you can easily exceed the safe upper limit for certain vitamins. For example, if you’re taking a high-dose multivitamin plus an antioxidant formula, you’ll almost certainly be getting more than 10,000 IUs of vitamin A, not even counting any vitamin A you get from your diet. And that’s more than we consider to be safe.
High doses of some nutrients can also interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. Let’s say someone’s taking a high-dose multi plus an immune-boosting supplement or a prostate health formula. The combination could easily contain over 50mg of zinc, which could interfere with your absorption of copper and cause a copper deficiency.
You’re very unlikely to run into any of these sorts of issues with a basic one-a-day multivitamin. Plus, taking a lot of extra nutritional supplements doesn’t appear to make you any healthier. The news on antioxidant supplements has been particularly discouraging. A number of big long-term studies have found that taking antioxidants doesn’t seem to protect against heart disease or cancer, as we had hoped they might. In fact, it appears that, in some cases, high-dose antioxidant supplements might actually increase your risk.
I’ll include a link to details on the latest findings in the show notes. Some argue that these studies may have used the wrong form of the vitamins in question, or that the dosages may have been too low to yield a benefit. That might be part of it, but I have a different suspicion.
Quick Tip: Best Time to Take Your Vitamin
If you take a multi-vitamin, it’s best to take it with a moderate-sized meal. Taking vitamins on an empty stomach can sometimes cause stomach upset. And taking them with food, which stimulates the release of digestive juices and enzymes, can help you absorb the nutrients better. But keep in mind that taking a vitamin pill can’t make up for a poor diet. The best way to get your nutrients is from fresh, whole foods.
The Best Nutrition Comes From Foods, Not Pills
I think that antioxidants do work to prevent disease and promote health, but they work best when you get them by eating more fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods, rather than taking them supplements. Until we know more, if you’re looking to turbo-charge your health, I’d suggest you spend that money at the farmers' market instead.
No amount of expensive vitamin supplements can do as much for you as a healthy, balanced diet of nutritious, minimally-processed foods. Do the very best you can with your diet. Then, consider a basic one-a-day multivitamin (plus calcium) to cover the gaps in a less-than-perfect diet.
Sadly, there are still places in the world, and right here in America, where malnutrition and serious nutrient deficiencies are common. There are some wonderful charitable organizations, including VitaminAngel.org and VitaminRelief.org, whose mission is to provide multivitamins to those who really need them and can’t afford them. This simple and inexpensive measure can prevent a world of suffering. In fact, I donate a portion of my book sales to one of these organizations. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve posted some links in the show notes.
This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, reminding you that these tips are provided for your information and entertainment and are not intended as medical advice.
If you have a nutrition question for me, or are interested in having me speak at your event or conference, send an email to email@example.com. I am also on Facebook and Twitter.
Have a great day and eat something good for me!
Community Nutrition Mapping Project
Vitamin Angel: Providing vital nutrition to children in need
Nourish America: Providing nourishing food and supplements to those in need
Use this link to shop on Amazon.com and a portion of your purchase will go to support Vitamin Relief
Scientists Conclude Antioxidants Supplements are Ineffective
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