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Are Vitamins Healthy Or Harmful?

There has long been debate about whether or not a person should take vitamin supplements. One research study contradicts the next and people are left totally confused.

Headlining recent news in the USA Today are two studies linking vitamin supplement use to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Of course, some people will run with these reports and now claim that vitamins cause heart disease and cancer! What in the world are we to believe?

In this post I’ll share with you some comments from nutrition experts cited in the USA Today article along with my personal stand on vitamins.

Jeffery Blumberg is a vitamin researcher and professor of nutrition science at Tufts University in Boston.

Marion Nestle is a nutrition professor at New York University.

Do you recommend a multi-vitamin?

Blumberg: I do. Lots of people are falling short of the recommended daily amount of several nutrients including calcium, potassium, vitamin D and vitamin E. To make sure we are getting the recommended amount of those and other nutrients, I advise taking a multi-vitamin formulated at 100% of the daily value.

Nestle: I much prefer food. I suggest supplements only to people with diagnosed nutrient deficiencies. One interesting finding in the (first) study is that women taking iron supplements had the highest risk. Why were women in their 80’s taking iron supplements anyway? They are postmenopausal and do not have to replace iron lost during menstruation.

Do you advise people to take other vitamin and mineral supplements?

Bloomberg: It depends on who you are and what you eat. Because the calcium in a multi-vitamin is not even close to the daily value, I recommend an additional supplement of calcium for people who don’t drink a lot of milk or eat enough dairy.

Because the recommended daily value of vitamin D was recently increased and this change is not reflected in most multi-vitamins on the market, I recommend that if you take a calcium supplement, you take one that also has vitamin D.

Beyond that, you need to think carefully about whether you need the additional supplements. For example, if you don’t eat much fish, have high triglycerides, and/or are at an increased risk for heart disease, you should consider a fish oil supplement of about one gram daily.

Nestle: Never. I think there are far too many studies now that suggest harm from excessive supplement intake. It’s very difficult to induce clinically significant nutrient deficiencies in people who get enough calories and eat reasonably well.

Do most people follow a diet healthful enough to get the nutrients they need?

Bloomberg: The average diet is poor when it comes to meeting the recommended intakes of vitamins and minerals. Only about 3% of Americans adhere to the dietary guidelines. How many Americans do you know who eat fiver to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day and consume at least 50% of their grains as whole grains?

If you are eating a perfectly healthful diet, then you don’t need supplements. Buf for the 97% who aren’t there yet, for goodness sake, take a multi-vitamin.

Nestle: Given our overabundant, over-fortified food supply, you would have to eat a highly restricted diet to develop vitamin deficiency symptoms. Go to story.

Here in lies the problem….

I’ve posted these comments from two nutrition experts so you could see the inherent problem with conflicting recommendations. One professor looks at vitamin supplementation as a possible aid for a healthy lifestyle. The other looks at vitamin supplementation in terms of clinical nutrient deficiencies.

Common sense will tell you there’s not much of a problem with true nutrient deficiencies from things like vitamin C, vitamin B, and others. I don’t know the last time I ran into someone who had beriberi or scurvy.

But does that really mean we don’t have nutrient deficiencies?

I would strongly argue against the claim we don’t have nutrient deficiencies. Sure, the average American is getting some vitamins and minerals from processed and refined foods that have been fortified, but is it really getting to the cells?

The real problem is we’re not eating enough whole natural foods. The deficiency comes from micro-nutrients and the lack of things like phytonutrients and anti-oxidants. No amount of multi-vitamin supplementation could ever make up for this deficiency. You must eat a healthy diet with sufficient fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fats.

Having said that, there are still some vitamin and mineral supplements to consider taking even with a very healthy diet.

The two most important in my opinion are vitamin D and omega-3’s.

If you’re eating lots of vegetables, nuts, and seeds, you don’t have to consume dairy in order to get sufficient calcium. Since I always promote a Primal Blueprint or modified Paleo type diet anyways, there’s not much of a need for calcium supplementation in most cases.

There are some exceptions for women who are at risk for osteopenia, but other than that you can get all the calcium you need from a healthy diet.

Vitamin D and omega 3’s are a much different story. I recommend all my clients take an omega-3 supplement as it’s truly one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health. Read more on my position with omega-3 supplements.

Research over the past few decades has uncovered several new potential roles of vitamin D. Many types of cells in the body can use vitamin D to help regulate critical cellular functions.

There’s new research coming out regularly showing the numerous benefits of vitamin D in the body. It truly could be a potential “super-supplement” in the same way omega-3’s are. A dosage of 2,000 IU’s per day is generally recognized as being the conservative upper limit of supplementation.

You want to avoid the thinking that “more is better” when it comes to vitamin and mineral supplementation. In fact, the majority of problems seen with supplementation come from taking too much of particular vitamin or mineral.

Your body uses vitamins and minerals synergistically together at the cellular level. Taking too much of something your body doesn’t need can lead to problems over time.

This is where you see things like vitamin E supplementation getting a bad rap and justifiably so. Men should avoid taking excess vitamin E due to the increased risk of prostate cancer. The same thing holds true for iron and calcium supplementation.

The bottom line is don’t take extra supplementation of these vitamins and minerals (above the daily recommended value) unless you’ve been diagnosed with a deficiency and your doctor recommends it.

So where does that leave us with multi-vitamin supplementation?

I have to agree with Dr. Blumberg that everyone would be well served to take a high quality multi-vitamin that’s formulated at 100% of the recommended daily values. The key thing is the dosages need to be low enough to not cause problems with over-supplementation.

Taking multi-vitamins that are formulated with 200-300% or more of the recommended daily allowances is not a good idea.

Since any synthetic man-made vitamin will have issues with assimilation, I always tell people not to rely on vitamins for their base nutrient needs. You simply cannot replace whole natural foods at the foundation of your diet.

Eating a diet of mostly processed and refined foods will always lead to problems, regardless of whether you’re taking a multi-vitamin or not.

Personally, I don’t always take a multi-vitamin but there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t take vitamin D or omega-3’s. Like I mentioned earlier, these are the two most important supplements in my book. The rest of my nutrition comes from a modified Primal Blueprint diet.


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Taking a low-dose multi-vitamin daily certainly won’t hurt although there’s not strong evidence to show it significantly helps either. I think it all goes back to the fact that we can’t replace our nutrition needs from pills or powders. God’s foods hold the key to our health, not something man made up in some lab.

Choosing a high quality multi-vitamin and mineral product is essential if you choose to supplement. This is not something you want to shop on price and pick up on the discount rack at the local drug store. My personal favorite is the Advocare MNS line.

I recommend Advocare supplements and attach my name to them because they provide some of the most rigorously tested, highest quality supplements you can buy.

My personal favorites for omega-3 supplements are the Advocare OmegaPlex or any of the Barlean’s products.

Bottom line…

Just like with most anything, the real problem with supplementation is in the excess consumption of vitamins and minerals your body doesn’t need. You need to carefully consider what you’re putting into your body.

Don’t gobble down a bunch of pills every day just because you think it will help offset or cure some health ailment. When a vitamin or mineral is shown to positively affect one area, excess consumption can lead to problems in others.

Remember, your body uses vitamins and minerals synergistically together at the cellular level to do their work. Unless there’s a know deficiency you won’t need a lot of supplementation to insure you’ve got adequate levels.

The studies that link vitamin and supplementation use to the increased risk of disease or mortality can invariably be linked to over-supplementation. Moderation once again is the answer.

Instead of looking for pill to cure your health problems, turn to whole natural foods as they really hold the key. I’ve yet to see a problem from someone eating too many fruits or vegetables.

God in his infinite wisdom knew what he was doing when he provided us with foods to eat on this earth. We only screw it up when we stray from those foods and start eating our own man-made foods and try to fill in the gaps with supplements.

That is where I stand.

I’d love to hear your comments. Feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Shane Doll is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts, a Charleston personal fitness training studio that specializes in weight loss and body transformation. You can receive a FREE, no-obligations (2) session personal training trial and consultation to experience the difference for yourself.

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Category: Shane's Commentary.