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Multi-Vitamins for Better Health. Or Death. Whatever.

Posted Nov 17 2008 9:19pm
Recently my friend N joined a gym. As part of his new gym experience, he got a meet-n-greet with a personal trainer. This gym, being of the swanky variety, offered him something better than a New Gym Smell car freshener. (No, I've never heard of those being offered but can you imagine how motivating that would be if every time you got in your car you smelled B.O., rubber and Head & Shoulders?) No, N's personal trainer-for-a-day started him out with a standard spiel and then worked into recommendations that went something similar to this (I say "similar" because I wasn't there and also I enjoy making up dialog for people.):

Personal Trainer: So if you really want to see a difference you need to take a really good multi-vitamin, some quality fish oils, a solid protein powder, some creatine...

N: Wait, wait, do you sell all this stuff?

PT: Of course! We have an excellent line of supplements!

N: Well, I have a problem taking supplement advice from people who sell them.

PT: Wha...? Why?

N: It's called a conflict of interest.

PT: You are no fun.

So then N did what any reasonable person would do - he asked me for advice. Because I am a good friend and because I delight in giving opinions on things which are not in my area of expertise (which is apparently obsolete computer skills), I gave him my best answer: "I don't know."

To Supplement or Not To Supplement
That is the question. And it's a valid one. Long touted as a way to fill in the "gaps" in one's nutrition, multi-vitamins and other supplements have been pushed on every demographic imaginable. Prenatal vitamins alone sell millions of pills a year. And for pregnant and lactating women, the advice is supported by research. But what about the rest of us who either don't have a uterus or aren't using it except for chocolate cravings every 28 days?

This is where it the research gets mixed. Individual vitamins have been studied and found to have many positive effects but it is nearly impossible to isolate the vitamin from the food that delivers it and from the interactions with other substances and/or lifestyle issues in human beings. Take vitamin E for instance. For years it could do no wrong and was touted as a wonder "nutraceutical" for everything from scar tissue to high blood pressure. People were encouraged to eat more almonds, yes, but also to pop thousands of milligrams a day in pills. The vitamin E bubble popped when researchers showed that excessive amounts of the vitamin actually increased mortality from all causes, by up to 20%.

The news about multi-vitamins is similarly disturbing. Researchers in Copenhagen found that in a meta-analysis of several large vitamin studies, taking a multi actually increased the risk of an early death. Critics, notably those in the supplement industry, have called the study flawed and warn that people who do not get adequate nutrients from their diets need to supplement for good health.

To further muddy the waters, some vitamins seem to really have a positive effect. Fish oil's life-lengthening properties, for example, have been born out in several studies. And vitamin D, like I have discussed before, while it has not been shown to necessarily increase life span, a deficiency has been shown to decrease it thereby throwing it in many people's minds into the "better too much than too little" category.

For me, the fundamental question in all of this is: Is it possible to get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to be healthy from a balanced diet? Surely not even the most enthusiastic vitamin-peddler would say that a vitamin could make up for the ill effects of subsisting on junk food and watching back-to-back marathons of The Real World. But what about those of us that eat healthy most of the time? Is it enough?

Anecdotal Evidence
Last June when I decided to stop taking Wellbutrin I also decided that I was done with pills altogether and quit taking my multi, calcium, fish oil, and vitamin C at the same time. What happened? Nothing. Of course I am a healthy eater most of the time. And, also, 6 months might not have been a long enough experiment. I know that I liked not having to take a fistful of pills every day. However, I also know that I am still in my fertile years and spina bifida is not pretty. And so I'm now taking a multi again.

In the past I have experimented with almost every supplement out there. I've done L-Carnitine (which works for some people), CLA, all the B vitamins, creatine, protein powder, Bragg's amino acids and many others in addition to the standard ones. Nothing has ever made a noticeable difference in my health. And yet because I didn't notice anything doesn't necessarily mean they weren't helping on some cellular level, right?

It is in the midst of this confusion that the supplement industry has stepped in. I think that they take advantage of our uncertainty and the lack of definitive research and then play off of our worst fears. The net result is spending a lot of money on things that we probably don't need and may possibly be hurting us.

Unless they're helping us.

PS> N - "chelated" in reference to vitamins apparently means firmly bonded to some other compound. Is that a good thing? According to this expert, " For some minerals, a chelated compound is better than some other forms. For some it is similar or worse and therefore a waste of money." So, yeah, there you go.

So what's your opinion on vitamins? Do you take anything? If not, what would your "Gym Smell Car Freshner" smell like?

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