We all have friends, family members, or coworkers, who religiously take vitamin or mineral supplements and swear by their benefits.
Or maybe the guy at GNC sold you something he claimed could help you with your #gains, or you bought something to “support your metabolism” after witnessing a cheesy commercial with people in fitness gear smiling while riding bicycles or you read some bogus stuff on the internet about why you need Emergen-C to avoid getting a cold so you’ve been drinking several a day.
Taking vitamins isn’t always a bad thing, but there is a lot of misconception and misinformation about supplements on the internet, and if you do take them, there are certain things you should know so you can safely decide what’s right for you.
First, foremost, and perhaps most obviously (but still worth stating): taking a vitamin is no replacement for a well-balanced, nutritious diet. This first point may seem super obvious, but for some reason, many people still can’t grasp the fact that taking a multivitamin or two is no replacement for eating a diet that’s robust with things like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Why? Micronutrients are tiny components of the foods you eat, and a vast majority of the time, you absorb them better from food sources. The vitamins and minerals come in more physiologically-friendly doses and friends with elements of the foods you’re eating that offer other benefits – like fiber and phytochemicals. Take home point: a multivitamin isn’t a magic health wand for eating cookie dough and pizza all day, even if you reach 100% of your RDAs.
Then there is the issue of the supplements themselves. No one – not the USDA, nor the FDA – regulates supplements. You could literally be paying for sugar pills for all you know. Even fish oil capsules have been a subject of controversy – some containing very little of the EPA and DHA they claim to have.
There is a movement to get some sort of third-party regulation system involved, but until that happens, take your vitamins and minerals with a grain of salt (no pun intended), and realize you actually may not be taking what the label advertises.
Next up, let’s talk about the research done with supplements. Lots of supplements will advertise all these potential benefits and “studies” that have been done. First off, you should be very hesitant to believe studies funded by companies trying to sell you something, and secondly, even within the scientific community, there are caveats to supplement studies.
For example, no one measures baseline levels of the person’s micronutrient status going into these studies. That means half the people in the experimental group could be deficient going into the study, while the other half could be completely well-nourished.
And unless the study is done meticulously with highly controlled diets, most people eat and drink a lot differently from one another while these studies are going on. This makes it hard to tease out what and how much the supplement is actually doing. So keep this in mind when you read those promises on the label.
Then there’s the issue of overdoing it. It’s easy to get trapped in the mentality that since vitamins are important for good health that more should automatically mean better. But this isn’t always true of vitamins.
Sure, for some water-soluble vitamins, if you consume more than the RDA, you just pee it out. No real harm done. But that’s not the case for all micronutrients.
Take, for example, Emergen-C. One packet of Emergen-C contains half – that’s right half – of what is considered a toxic dose of Vitamin C. If you take two or more a day, or eat any foods with Vitamin C (it’s abundant in a ton of fruits and vegetables), it can give you diarrhea, nausea, heartburn, headaches, insomnia, lead to dental erosion, and increase your risks of forming kidney stones.
And that’s in addition to the fact that multiple meta-analyses of well-designed scientific studies have proven time and time again, there is no true or significant benefit to taking Vitamin C to avoid getting sick, or to reduce the time you are sick.
This is just one example of many vitamins and minerals that can actually be dangerous at high levels, and lots of supplements give you mega-doses. Things get even more complicated when you consider that some vitamins and minerals at high levels inhibit the absorption of other vitamins and minerals, meaning you could be risking falling short on some micronutrients by trying to beef up others (example: dietary calcium supplements inhibit iron absorption, and dietary iron supplements may inhibit zinc absorption, to name a few).
Am I saying no one should take supplements? No. For certain populations (pregnant women, vegans who do consume any natural or fortified with B12), those with medical issues (like malabsorption disorders), people with dietary restrictions, or those who only eat unfortified organic foods, vitamin and mineral supplements can be great tools to a healthful lifestyle.
But for the rest of us, taking handfuls of supplement pills, knocking back gummy vitamins all day, adding those “boosts” to already overpriced smoothies, or guzzling Emergen-C isn’t doing much other than making our urine really, really expensive and/or potentially putting us at risk of overdose.
Now pass the kale.