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B Vitamins for Better Health or More Supplement Hype? [Getting Health Advice From the Costco Taste Test Guy]

Posted Mar 27 2011 9:58pm
Cartoon says: (man) "Gosh, Honey, you seem to thrive on cooking, cleaning and dusting and I'm all tuckered out by closing time. What's the answer?" (woman) "Vitamins, Darling! I always get my vitamins!" Charlotte says: Gee willikers, I want some speed fortified with vitamins too!

I was accosted at Costco. It all started on Saturday - I was trashed after doing Hot Yoga and TurboKick back-to-back (talk about the two sweatiest classes ever!) so I suggested to Gym Hubby that we take the kids to Costco for what I call "the walking lunch." (Confession: I actually wanted to go to Costco because Gym Buddy Sarah told me they had tutus on sale there and you know I have a tutu addiction.) See, on Saturdays Costco deploys their fleet of taste testers - generally sweet elderly people who give my kids two of everything - and by the time we've walked up and down all the aisles the kids have had lunch and I've got my shopping done. I know, I'm a parenting genius. (Or lazy.)

As a general rule I don't eat grocery store samples - first because I don't like packaged food and second because Intuitive Eating says you should always sit down to eat and sitting in the aisles makes my shopping go slower than it already does with 4 kids in tow. But this time the last sample table caught my eye. At first because the young man was trying to hand my kids a caffeinated drink and they need caffeine like I need more tutus but as I got closer I realized it wasn't just a drink, it was a fitness supplement. I was curiouser than Alice and Goldilocks in Charlie Sheen's mansion (I am riding this pony 'till it dies!).

The product was Zipfizz. The man rattled off his spiel, something akin to this, off their website :
Zipfizz is healthy energy in a tube! Give your body a rush of vitamins, minerals and key amino acids to protect the immune system. Zipfizz has created an advanced formula that provides a significant amount of vitamins, fewer calories, lower carbohydrates, superior taste, variety and unique packaging! Simply put, it's different because it's good for you!
It has unique packaging; you should totally buy it!! Actually what really made me stop was when the salesman said , "It’s our signature Vitamin B12 that gets you movin’! Dedicated to providing consumers with a healthier alternative to energy and sports drinks we deliver an amazing amount of B12 41,667%. Straight to the point...Vitamin B12 equals ENERGY!" That much is from their website, he added, "It works because B12 uses the excess protein in your body and synthesizes it into energy. B vitamins are natural fat burners so they'll help you lose weight too."

I was annoyed. Why does every fitness professional automatically assume I want to lose weight? (Okay, I do but still... I'm trying to not be obsessive about that anymore and this didn't help.) I smelled shoddy science which, for the record, smells like burnt popcorn. I didn't buy the Zipfizz. I'd like to say I was overtaken by rational thought but really it was when Gym Hubby announced loudly that I'm not allowed to take caffeine as it interferes with my crazy meds and led me away by the arm. I love that man.

So caffeine's out but what about those B vitamins? Do they really do what he says? When I was a vegan I took a B12 supplement - of which it is also rumored that Madonna gets megadoses shot into her butt once a month (I'm so on top of my celeb butt gossip!) - but I never really paid attention to why I needed it.

What are B Vitamins?
The category known as B vitamins contain 8 water-soluble vitamins including those known commonly as riboflavin, thiamine, folic acid, biotin and niacin. The nice thing about being water soluble is that it's nearly impossible to overdose - you just pee out the excess. Bonus: it turns your urine a shade of neon yellow so shocking that if you aren't prepared for it you will scream out loud in a public bathroom stall. Not that I know anything about that personally. Ahem. The downside of water solubility is that if your body doesn't need them, it doesn't store the extra and therefore you just have really expensive pee.

B Vitamin Deficiencies
Remember beri-beri, that hilarious sounding illness that your history teacher talked about, usually in conjunction with scurvy, the other illness that always makes me think of pirates and giggle? It's caused by a B1 deficiency. Other not-so-funny problems resulting from B vitamin deficiencies include "emotional disturbances", acne, irregular heartbeat, psychosis and pernicious anemia (beware the pernicious knid!).

While nobody wants to be emotionally disturbed, it's the anemia that is the real killer. And I mean that literally. The anemia resulting from a deficiency can be fatal and even when it isn't, the brain damage is irreversible. B12 comes from a bacteria that is only found in animal products (although there is some evidence that some seaweed may contain a form of it), hence the reason vegans are told to either take a supplement or eat foods fortified with it like most breads and cereals.

B Vitamin Benefits
Now that we've covered the death and destruction segment of today's show, let's look at those Zipfizz claims. According to research , B vitamins are known to increase the rate of metabolism (I suppose that's where the weight-loss claim comes from), help skin, increase muscle tone, improve the immune and nervous systems, aid in cell growth and division especially that of red blood cells, prevent anemia and reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.

I know. I'm kinda wishing I'd bought the Zipfizz now. But there's a catch - like many vitamins, they don't operate in a vacuum. Many studies, especially the ones related to cancer risk, only show the benefits when the B vitamins are consumed from food and not in pill form.

To Supplement of Not to Supplement, That is the Question
In an LA Times article about B-vitamin infused sports drinks, Hope Barkoukis, an associate professor of nutrition at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and chairwoman of Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutritionists says,
"Contrary to what ads would have us believe, B vitamins aren't little packets of energy. It's brilliant marketing but it doesn't have any basis."

"It's true that the vitamins help unlock the energy in foods, Barkoukis says, but weary office workers can't expect to get a jolt from extra B vitamins in any form. The reason, she says, is simple: Just about everyone in America [with the exception of some of the elderly] already gets all of the B vitamins they could possibly need in their diets."
Conclusion*
Surprising no one, whole foods win out again! Instead of buying Zipfizz or other b-vitamin supplements, make sure you get plenty of (this will shock you) leafy greens, fruits like watermelon, tomatoes (they are too a fruit!) and bananas, beans, lentils and the full gamut of animal products including eggs, chicken, beef, liver, seafood, and dairy.

If you are vegan or don't like lots of produce you should consider a supplement or fortified foods. (Note: despite the popular wisdom in some vegan circles, neither nutritional yeast nor brewer's yeast contain B12 unless they are fortified with it and it says so on the label.) B12 supplements are not derived from the animal products themselves but rather the bacterial microorganisms that live on animals. ( One website adds "although some vegans may get b12 from inadequate hand washing, this is not advisable." In all my time as a vegan I never once considered getting b12 from my own fecal matter! Awesomesauce.)

Has anyone ever automatically assumed that your primary interest in health products is weight loss? Have you ever tried an energy drink like Zipfizz or 5-hour Engery fortified with megadoses of B vitamins? How do you feel about getting health advice from the taste-tester guy at Costco?

*Let's remember that I am not a nutritionist, doctor or scientist and am completely unqualified to give advice. I'm just telling you the information I found so you can make your own informed decisions.

Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2011. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!
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