Vitamins. From our days as kids sneaking extra purple and red Fred Flintstone’s that crunched between our teeth into a gritty powder to today when chewable are available in every flavor for everyone from toddlers to the elderly, it seems like consuming the daily vitamin is an essential part of staying healthy… but is it really? Multivitamins are the most widely consumed supplement in the world. It is thought that taking a multivitamin will fill in the gaps in a regular or poor diet, ensuring that the body receives all the crucial vitamins and minerals it needs each day. In theory this could make up for inadequate diets, boost the immune system and ward off diseases since we would be functioning optimally with all our nutritional bases covered – but reality might be a different story.
Why do we need vitamins and minerals?
Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients required to carry out the countless cellular functions that allow us to live. Since cells are the building blocks of our bodies, all our various body systems and thus our overall health, depend on them to keep us growing, healing, and maintaining life. There are 13 essential vitamins and about 16 minerals that are crucial to maintaining body processes and good health. Since we don’t produce most vitamins and minerals ourselves, we need to obtain them from food or other outside sources. Enter: the multivitamin.
The Truth about Multivitamins
It would be extremely convenient to receive the lifegiving nutrients our bodies require daily from a panacea as simple as a little pill. The truth is that multivitamins are not as straightforward as we might hope. Though they do contain vitamins and minerals, the amount and forms they take vary. Some are sourced from real foods while others are produced synthetically in laboratories. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the supplement industry, so claims made on the packaging do not have to be true. Even the amounts and ingredients within don’t have to comply to an industry standard or the words on the labels.
Multiple studies have been conducted that proved no benefit in the consumption of multivitamins, and that too much of certain vitamins could pose a risk. Dr. Guallar, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said “While I agree that the likelihood of harm is small, the likelihood of a clear health benefit is also very small - and also we have no clear proof yet of such benefit.
The Issue: Bioavailability
The issue with multivitamins is the form in which they enter the body. Though they may contain the vitamins and minerals we require, our bodies are built to extract nutrients from whole foods, not synthetic versions of food extracts. This renders the nutrients in multivitamins not as bioavailable, or usable by our bodies. Our cells therefore cannot extract and absorb what they need so the contents of the multivitamins largely pass right through us into our urine. This often creates expensive and brightly colored pee.
If multivitamins aren’t the path to health, then how can we ensure we are getting all the vitamins and minerals our body needs? The answer to this is simple. Eat a varied diet containing plenty of fresh whole foods. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes contain the nutrients your body depends upon for optimal health. Eat the rainbow – different colored fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients, so make sure you are eating a variety of these natural colors in addition to other healthy whole foods. As with so many fads, diets and health crazes that seem too good to be true, multivitamins sound logical but do not take the place of eating fresh, healthy food.
All of this being said, there are certain times when taking specific vitamins might aid in your health. Certain deficiencies found by a doctor could be reversed by taking specific supplements. Also, women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or have the chance of becoming pregnant benefit from taking Folic Acid and Vitamin D, both of which, among a slew of other constituents, are found in prenatal vitamins. Folic Acid helps prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly in infants and Vitamin D (which also comes from the sun) aids in bone development.