Recent studies have called into question the value of taking vitamins and nutritional supplements. Some researchers even claim that their findings demonstrate that nutrients in pills can make your health worse. This controversy points to one indisputable truth: Your primary tool for getting optimal nutrition is eating a diet filled with fruits and vegetables. If you eat a junk food diet, supplements can’t offset its negative effects.
What A Body Needs
About 10 years ago, I was in a natural health store and overheard a customer ask the owner a provocative question: “How do I know if these supplements are helping me, and how long do I need to take them?”
His answer was smooth and well-rehearsed and went something like this: “Your body needs all of the essential vitamins and nutrients that we used to get from food. But now, with chemical farming, stress, poor diet and pollution, we can’t get them anymore. You are deficient every day on your nutritional needs and supplements are the necessary answer to becoming healthy over time.”
It sounds like the wellness lifestyle party line. But it’s a line that doesn’t tell the whole truth. I’ll tell you why momentarily, but first I want to share some recent investigations.
The Feb. 28, 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) featured an article titled “Mortality in Randomized Trials of Antioxidant Supplements for Primary and Secondary Prevention.” This was a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effectiveness of five antioxidant supplements: beta carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium. In all, the authors compared the results of 68 randomized trials published in 385 publications that included 232,606 total participants. What they found, in short:
“When all low- and high-bias risk trials of antioxidant supplements were pooled together there was no significant effect on mortality. … In low-bias risk trials, after exclusion of selenium trials, beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E, singly or combined, significantly increased mortality. Vitamin C and selenium had no significant effect on mortality.”
In the most recent JAMA issue, the article “Vitamin E and the Risk of Prostate Cancer” offered an overview of a “Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT).” The objective of this study was to see if relatively healthy men were better off (at reduced risk) of developing prostate cancer when taking antioxidant supplementation. A summary of what they found:
”A total of 35,533 men from 427 study sites… were randomized between August 22, 2001, and June 24, 2004. … randomly assigned to 1 of 4 treatment groups: 8752 to receive selenium; 8737, vitamin E; 8702, both agents, and 8696, placebo. … Compared with placebo, the absolute increase in risk of prostate cancer per 1000 person-years was 1.6 for vitamin E, 0.8 for selenium, and 0.4 for the combination. … Conclusion: Dietary supplementation with vitamin E significantly increased the risk of prostate cancer among healthy men.”
Similar research has tracked women’s supplement use. In a joint study by the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio and the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, it was found that older women allegedly increased their risk of death when taking vitamins:
“The study found that several supplements were associated with an increased risk of mortality, including multivitamins (increased absolute risk [IAR] of 2.4%), folic acid (IAR of 5.9%), iron (IAR of 3.9%), and copper (IAR of 18%). It also found that calcium supplementation was associated with a reduced risk of death.”
But while these large population studies seem to suggest supplements statistically increase the risk of death, the researchers did not analyze individuals’ diets and didn’t take into account whether their subjects were taking supplements derived from whole foods.
A Natural Approach
My own philosophy on this subject is simply to focus on a natural approach. Your body is built to break down, digest and pull nutrients from food: whole, unprocessed, untreated, unpackaged food. In addition, if you take supplements, they should be high-quality supplements derived from whole foods.
Foods contain enzymes and hundreds of other natural components that are needed to transport and break down their nutrients for use by the body. When specific nutritive components of foods like vitamins are chemically treated in a lab, isolated and put into low quality supplements, those supplements can be difficult for the body to break down and use.
In light of the clinical trials that call supplement use into question, consumers need to think long and hard about the research that backs up the supplements they take, whether their supplements are derived from whole food sources and what kind of diet they are eating. Most health experts agree: Your diet is of paramount importance in determining your health. It should contain plenty of organic fruits and veggies. If you eat fast food burgers, fries and soft drinks every day, a supplement is not going to appreciably improve your well-being.