If you woke up this morning and decided you were really craving the closest thing to a real-life periodic table, just take a trip to the vitamin aisle at the grocery store or CVS. A hundred bottles staring you in the face, all with atomic element abbreviations that you need a chemistry degree to decipher. Remember when you were little and thought your grandparents’ pill boxes were filled with candy? Myriad pills, all different colors and shapes, most resembling Mike & Ikes. You watched as it took almost a full glass of water to swallow the multicolored bounty. When did we all turn into grandparents with pill boxes full of vitamins?
No nutrition degree is required to know vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, A, calcium, and iron are good for you. Each plays a vital role in the functioning of the body – from aiding nutrient absorption to building strong bones to keeping eyes and skin healthy. What you may not know is there is a recommended daily value for each vitamin to maintain healthy and appropriate levels in your body. Would you ever be able to measure exactly how much of each vitamin you are taking in and absorbing every day? I mean you could, but I would likely accuse you of not having anything better to do with your time. It would take meticulous tracking and research on the vitamin content of all the foods you eat. And once you eat something, you have to take into account the percent of each vitamin that is actually absorbed. Let’s just say it involves a lot of math. Thanks, but no thanks.
So if it’s that difficult to track your vitamin and mineral consumption, how do we all decide what vitamins and supplements we take? If you’re thinking that we conduct evidence-based research on the effects of each supplement and make our decisions based on unbiased experimental studies, you’re dead wrong. If you think most of the information on supplements comes from popular media like Dr. Oz, ding ding ding! You got it! If you recall my earlier reference to the periodic table, you’ll know that I’m not about to give you the rundown of all the vitamins that exist. I want to talk about them more in general terms, and explore what compels us to visit that vast vitamin aisle in the first place.
You have several options in the vitamin aisle – you can take a multivitamin or you can purchase your vitamins individually. The label will tell you the amount of the vitamin found in each pill, and what percent of the recommended daily value that represents. Interactive question time: do you think vitamins are better when they are over 100% of the daily value? Do you think more is better with vitamins? If you do, you’re not alone. I feel like that is the general opinion when it comes to vitamins and other supplements. Vitamins are important, but I think we’re forgetting that tons of vitamins are found in food, not just in bottles.
There have been several studies (I won’t cite them all, not to worry) where participants are given mega-doses of vitamins in pill-form to examine the effect on the prevention of disease like cancer and heart disease. More often than not, there has been no significant benefit to taking vitamins alone. While not easy to study, you’re more likely to reap health benefits from how the vitamins in whole foods interact in your body. You could take a Nature Made brand vitamin A supplement for 8,000 International Units (IUs), or you could chomp on 1 ounce of baby carrots (1 ounce is only 2 tablespoons) for 3,861 IUs. The recommended daily value is 5,000 IUs, and the upper limit for this particular vitamin is 10,000 IUs. This means that vitamin A can actually have toxic effects in large amounts over that upper limit. The supplement pushes the upper limit, not leaving any room for those baby carrots I know we all love (this is what ranch dressing is for). If you did a little research into the nutrients in foods, especially vitamin-packed fruits and vegetables, you’d see that all you have to do is eat a balanced diet to pretty much get the vitamins and minerals you need on a daily basis. I like using the Self Magazine nutrition data website; it’s an easy way to get that on-the-spot breakdown of vitamin information that is trickier to find on a standard nutrition label (http://nutritiondata.self.com).
Bottom line is taking a daily multivitamin won’t hurt, and it can help fill the gaps your diet may be missing. But don’t go crazy in the vitamin aisle. Vitamins can be unnecessary if you eat a variety of foods, and they’re expensive! Buy a bag of spinach instead. There’s your multivitamin. Adopt a “food first” philosophy…it tastes better!