Do you need to take a vitamin?
Gwyneth Paltrow seems to think the answer is yes. Her new Goop-branded monthly vitamin packs, which cost $US90 each and sport names like “Why Am I So Effing Tired” and “High School Genes,” claim to deliver a number of health benefits, from energy-boosting to metabolism-speeding.
But there’s a problem.
Study after scientific study has found that taking vitamins does not result in any such wellness perks, suggesting that most of the nutrients inside either end up in the toilet or are flushed out of your body in other ways.
If taking vitamins improves our health, then we’d expect to see those benefits clearly in large, long-term, well-controlled studies. We haven’t.
A large recent review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine of 27 trials of vitamins (3 focused on multivitamins and 24 on single or paired ones) involving more than 400,000 people concluded that people who took them did not live longer, get fewer cases of heart disease, or get fewer cases of cancer than people who did not take vitamins. Another big, long-term study published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association which divided nearly 6,000 men into groups and gave them either a placebo or one of 4 supplements touted for their brain-protecting abilities found no decreased prevalence of dementia among any of the supplement-taking groups.
On the contrary, the available evidence suggests that the opposite can happen when we start taking certain supplements. A large, long-term study of male smokers found that those who regularly took vitamin A were more likely to get lung cancer than those who didn’t. And a 2007 review of trials of several types of antioxidant supplements put it this way: “Treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.”
The reason vitamins and supplements don’t do us much good appears to stem from the fact that vitamins in isolation may not provide nutrients in the form the body needs.
“A major problem with supplements is that they deliver vitamins out of context,” Susan Taylor Mayne, a former professor at the Yale School of Public Health and the current director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told Scientific American in 2007.
When we bite into a juicy peach or a crunchy Brussels sprout, we’re ingesting vitamins, but we’re also taking in numerous other nutrients embedded in their fibrous flesh. Broccoli and cabbage contain phytochemicals like isothiocyanates, for example, while carrots and tomatoes have carotenoids. Together, these nutrients power our bodies, supplying us with energy and making us feel satiated.
So if you answered “no” to the first question at the top of this post, your best bet is to make a few tweaks to your diet.
This could mean eating less red meat, fewer sweets, and more fresh fruits and vegetables — all of which are great sources of vitamins like A, C, and E. Recently-updated USDA guidelines echo these recommendations. Several leading nutritionists and public health experts also recommend adding healthy fats like those from avocados, oily fish, and nuts, to the list. Surprise, surprise: These also contain high levels of vitamins C and E and potassium, along with other key nutrients like omega-3s. Happy eating.