(In part one of this article, we discussed how in the modern diet, getting essential nutrition can be difficult.  We also covered how without the right nutrition, many physical ailments as well as depression can befall us.  We continue this article with investigating if vitamin supplements do indeed help with our nutritional requirement or are whole foods a better option?)

Do we Need Vitamin Supplements?

Unlike drugs can have clear side effects and are marketed as such, multivitamins are marketed as being safe, with few if any side effects widely publicized, so why aren't they used more often?  It turns out they have little to no effect on cancer or cardiovascular–disease mortality, according to the best evidence (Gaziano et al. 2012; Sesso et al. 2012; Huang et al. 2006). The reasons for this are complex, but some are intuitive.

Just because a pill has 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of vitamins and minerals doesn't mean the pill will help an individual, since RDAs are population–based estimates. Also, just because we break down nutrition into its smallest components and then take those and put them in a supplement doesn’t mean that they work the same as in their original form in food.  If I eat an apple, I get certain benefit from those nutrients because it is in the form of an apple.  It doesn’t mean that if I break it down and reconstitute the apple into a tablet it will have the same positive effects.  This is what author and nutrition expert Michail Pollin calls nutritionism.  In addition, when you add up the vitamins you get in those pills, plus what you get in your diet, it can cause harm. For example, research has increasingly pointed to cancer risks from folic acid supplementation (Baggott, Oster & Tamura 2012). So eating nutritious foods, rather than swallowing nutrient–filled pills, may be the safer way to avoid deficiency.

This reasoning extends to fish oil supplements. While fish oil has mixed evidence for health benefits, fish tends to perform better than separated fish oil in a direct comparison (Grey & Bolland 2014; Cobiac et al. 1991). People generally focus on getting more and more omega–3 fatty acids, without knowing the biochemistry of why this issue came up in the first place.

Omega–3s in the body often directly compete with omega–6s, with the latter typically being more inflammatory. The ratio of the two is more important than the absolute level of omega–3s in the diet (Simopoulos 2002).  We already get a large amount of omega–6 from a variety of foods, including vegetable oils and meats, which can direct our body toward inflammation.  Attempting to balance out this ratio by consuming fish oil supplements is probably a bad idea, as fish oil has surprisingly little evidence for efficacy in disease prevention, plus supplemental fish oil can be prone to potentially harmful oxidation (Grey & Bolland 2014; Albert el al. 2013).

Avoiding the Bad Foods is Important

What do people have in common who have low levels of micronutrients?  They almost always lack whole foods in their diets. Consuming single nutrients, such as individual antioxidants, is less likely to improve health than taking in a variety of phytochemicals through real food (Liu 2004; Hart et al. 2012). Antioxidant supplements have even shown potential to harm health in many studies which makes sense given that high levels of certain individual nutrients could throw a wrench in normal biochemical pathways. What's more, supplements sometimes harm people because of simple manufacturing errors, as happened once when selenium supplements contained 200 times the amount listed on the labels.

So back to our original question; can you get enough micronutrients through diet alone? The answer for most people is a resounding yes!  How? First of all, remember there are no such things as superfoods, but there are staple foods high in nutrients. Many fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, and animal products (plus nuts and legumes) are often rich in certain minerals. Moreover, some foods are especially high in certain nutrients, making them useful if you find you are low in a nutrient. For example, certain fish is often quite high in minerals, eggs are rich in fat–soluble vitamins, leafy greens are rich in vitamin K and other nutrients, and liver (you can eat it in small amounts) is an overall nutritional powerhouse (that happens to be considered unpalatable to younger people, but doesn't have to be if cooked properly).

Even though thousands of studies have explored the health impact of nutrients, we're unsure about the exact effects because randomized trials typically last only a few months or a couple of years. But let’s look at something else: different cultures around the world in different geographical locations.  People in many of these cultures enjoy fairly long lifespans (even without health care and with occasional food shortages), and nutrient measures tend to be mostly adequate even though the people literally never take supplements (Lindeberg et al. 1997; Srikumar et al. 1994).

The bottom line: Getting mega-nutrition through pills is probably less important than avoiding processed and unhealthy foods. You don't have to jam–pack your diet with exotic berries high in antioxidants and eat nothing but power smoothies. Focus on getting a variety of foods, and keep intake of junk foods low. Though modern foods and diets may not be quite as nutritious as in centuries past, we are much more likely to get enough food each day.  As we know, this is the generation of plenty, so we have the luxury of choosing what we eat. Take advantage of that.

Nutrition is one of the many keys to good all-around health.  Eating properly is a means to staying out of the doctor’s office.  It is helpful to give us the energy we need as well.  Coupled together with exercise, this is preventative medicine at its best! Unless you have a very specific deficiency, vitamin pills and supplements just aren’t necessary.  Using whole foods as a means to good nutrition will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.” 

Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. CERTIFIED PERSONAL TRAINER and a CERTIFIED WELLNESS COACH with over 19 years of professional experience. Alan is the creator and director of the “10 Weeks to Health” program for weight loss.  He is available for private coaching sessions, consultations, assessments and personalized workout programs. Alan also lectures and gives seminars and workshops. He can be reached at 02-651-8502 or 050-555-7175, or by email at alan@alanfitness.com   Check out the his web site – www.alanfitness.com    US Line: 516-568-5027