Prior to changing my eating and opening my eyes, I was a supplement, fortified and enriched foods addict. Like many people I know, I had a shelf for protein powders, and not one, but TWO, supplement bins overflowing in my pantry. My fridge was stocked with several dairy alternative products, ones I assumed incorrectly actually contained all of the vitamins and minerals I saw gleaming from the nutrition label. I was the first person to lecture my family members about why they needed a certain multivitamin or brand of fish oil, because studies, and experts, and talk show hosts, said so. I had the best intentions, but now I wish I had spent all that energy encouraging them to eat better, real, whole food, not take the latest fad pill because Dr. Oz, or someone like him, said they should.
Still, it wasn’t easy to finally throw away all of my supplements. When I think about how much I spent on all the bottles of crap I so willingly purchased and put in my body, it’s pretty depressing. Oh the shoes I could have bought instead! But I feel strongly that I’m making the right decision by saying goodbye to it all.
Here are 10 of the biggest reasons I’m throwing away my multivitamin, protein powders, and supplements.
1. What you see isn’t always what you get.
When it comes to supplements, you may not always be buying and ingesting what you think you are. Supplements, including multivitamins and the synthetic vitamins foods are enriched with, aren’t regulated like actual food in the United States. Food has stricter standards wherein the burden of proof is on the food manufacturer to prove the safety of their products. For the supplement industry, the opposite is true. The FDA or other health officials, have to either prove that a supplement is dangerous or adulterated to get it off the market. And that is no easy task. For the FDA to conclusively test and pursue the safety of the thousands of supplements out there, it would potentially cost billions of dollars the government just does not have. Passing that cost back to the supplement companies is an option, though one that they’ve lobbied against for years. However, on a smaller, but particularly eye opening scale, the NY Attorney General investigation, in which major retailers were asked to hault sales of certain herbal supplements because the products didn’t contain what they claimed, and some were even contaminated with plant material, is just one example of how shady the industry can be.
2. Safety, short and long term.
It’s not just herbal supplements, and what’s really in them, that is worrisome, it’s fortified and enriched foods too, and our willingness to choose synthetic vitamins and multivitamins over whole foods. I’ll be presenting my findings in more blogs to come, but here are some that are especially startling about the actual effects of too many vitamins, outside of food form, on the body.
A January 2006 study of 3,022 infant’s and children’s intake of micronutrients from fortified foods and vitamin products found “Excessive intakes (ie, intakes above the Tolerable Upper Intake Level)… noted for both supplement users and nonusers for vitamin A (97% and 15% of toddlers) and zinc (60% and 59% of older infants and 68% and 38% of toddlers) as well as for folate among supplement users (18% of toddlers).” And this was years ago, now synthetic vitamins are in everything, even whole fruit smoothies, like Naked Products. What could too many “vitamins” be doing to the future health of our children?
Folic Acid fortification is especially concerning, since it’s been mandatory for U.S. flour since 1998, and is pushed on women of child bearing age everywhere.
An August 2014 review of available research cautions against over supplementation with Folic Acid stating, “Current data suggest that there is cause for concern as maternal MS diets [folic acid is an MS vitamin, for example] may lead to epimutations that underpin various diseases, including neurobehavioral disorders. Further studies are needed to explore the comprehensive effects maternal MS diets have on the offspring epigenome and subsequent overall health.” If you drink and eat fortified and enriched products, and take a multivitamin, it is VERY possible that you’re getting too much folic acid without even realizing it, intake of which could have very real consequences on your health and the health of future generations.
A December 2014 paper entitled “Contemporary issues surrounding folic Acid fortification Initiatives” states that “Folate fortification has been associated with the presence of unmetabolized folic acid (PteGlu) in blood, masking of vitamin B12 deficiency, increased dosage for anti-cancer medication, photo-catalysis of PteGlu leading to potential genotoxicity, and a role in…colorectal cancer.” The authors go on to conclude that more study needs to be done to simply understand what supplementation might be doing to us. But yet it’s still added to our flour, our cereal, and even our almond milk and is in most multivitamins for women of all ages.
Again, those are just three studies. There are so many more that shed light on how taking micronutrients from which they naturally came – food and herbs in some cases – and adding them to products in which they don’t belong, while supplement use remains unchecked, can be dangerous to human health.
The results of studies of supplement use vary wildly depending on who you ask. For every good one, there’s a bad one, and sometimes a really, really bad one. Vitamin supplements DO have the power to address severe nutrient deficiencies in populations with no access to a Whole Foods, but beyond that, the evidence is inconclusive and sometimes downright startling as to what daily use might do. But even if they are safe, as in not causing direct harm, they probably aren’t effective most of the time and certainly cannot replace good quality food.
Catherine Price, in her book Vitamania, reviewed five of the largest studies on the plant derived form of vitamin A and found that only “one had been slightly positive, two had been alarmingly negative, and the other two were neutral.”
So even if beta-carotene supplementation doesn’t exponentially increase cancer deaths like was found in the two negative studies, it might do absolutely nothing at all when consumed in concentrated form.
You know what most supplements don’t have, especially multivitamins? The magic of phytochemicals. More and more we’re learning that messing with nature has negative consequences, so why would we think that extracting the known vitamins from the plant or animal from which they originally came, might not also have unintended outcomes. The stuff in fruits and vegetables especially – the fiber and phytochemicals – work together like trees with the atmosphere. It’s mysterious and beautiful and awesome, JUST THE WAY IT IS. Messing with that by extracting one or two compounds, is meddling with the magic that makes them good for us in the first place.
To illustrate this, Catherine Price writes in Vitamania that, “A study published in 2000 in Nature… found that 100 grams of apple produced the same amount of antioxidant activity as 1,500 milligrams of vitamin C. (To put this in context, the current RDA for most adults is 90 milligrams of C per day, and a medium apple weighs about 200 grams.) But 100 grams of apples only contains 5.7 milligrams of vitamin C – which means that most of the apples’ antioxidant activity must not be produced by vitamin C at all; instead, it’s likely due to some combination of phenolic acids and flavonoids, and/or other phytochemicals that we don’t know about.”
Even if someday we’re able to reverse engineer an apple, identifying and extracting all that makes it nutritionally powerful, those processed compounds still won’t be the real thing.
We can also thank Catherine Price’s book for this awesome tidbit about the power of ACTUAL food over supplements and how food is absorbed, “A 2011 study on broccoli found that giving subjects fresh broccoli florets led them to absorb and metabolize seven times more of the anticancer compounds known as glucosinolates, present in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, than when glucosinolates were given in straight capsule form (p. 224).”
Who knows how much of that reservatrol supplement or Q10 or any other miracle pill currently being marketed is actually readily available to your body after it’s made shelf stable, packaged up, and obtained from a Costco store somewhere? What we do know, however, is that whole, fresh fruit and vegetables, and good quality meats provide readily absorb-able nutrients for the human species and have for thousands of years.
6. Not necessary.
Unless you’re lost at sea for several months without a vitamin C containing fruit or vegetable, or trapped inside for an entire winter without access to a grocery store’s fish department, you probably don’t need any supplements.
“But vitamin D!” people have said to me. You mean, the latest fad nutrient being pushed on everyone from infants to the elderly? I’ll be presenting more alarming research during the 90-Day No Supplement Challenge, but between now and then, just eat some fatty fish. I had a piece the other day, and it was 400% of the vitamin D I need for one day. The body is like a bank, you eat more of one thing one day you can eat less of it the next.
When it comes to the supplement industry there ARE some manufacturers that source better quality ingredients and perform more comprehensive testing, and this cost is passed down to the consumer. Take the fancy prenatal vitamin I’m trashing for food. It cost me approximately $30 per month. For $30, I could buy four tubs of spinach ($3 each, total $12) and three packages of chicken breasts ($6 each, or $18). Not only would I be getting much of the iron and B vitamins I need to support a healthy pregnancy from this bounty, but I’d be reaping the benefits of the magical compounds in food that scientists have only begun to understand. Whole food is always better AND cheaper, than lab produced portions of the real thing.
What’s good for you, isn’t necessarily good for me. Gender, age, height, weight, and especially genetic background, all influence our nutrient needs. While some supplements and vitamins are engineered for age, gender, and activity level, I’m not aware of any designed specifically for certain genetic backgrounds. Further still, there’s no easy blood test to determine exactly what we need or what we’re lacking in. Listening to your body, while eating a colorful variety of foods, remains the safest and most effective way to get optimal nutrition.
Unless synthetic vitamins are sprinkled on a candy bar, most of them would taste pretty nasty in pure form. But you know what does taste good? FOOD!
10. The World’s Healthiest people don’t take supplements.
What population has the longest life expectancy in the world? It isn’t the fortified Americans, that’s for sure. The Okinawans, a small island population in Japan, eat lots of vegetables (and some meat too!). Health writer Michael Booth’s The Guardian Article on Okinawa explains, “Their indigenous vegetables are particularly interesting: their purple sweet potatoes are rich in flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamin E and lycopene, and the local bitter cucumbers, or “goya”, have been shown to lower blood sugar in diabetics.”
I would put a wager on it that there’s one thing Okinawans aren’t consuming on the daily: supplements. In fact, picturing a wiry old Japanese man downing a protein smoothie and chasing it with a vitamin cocktail just makes me laugh.
If I haven’t convinced you to trade your multivitamin and protein powder for food, than I hope I’ve at least made you reconsider how much of the essential nutrients you’re getting from concentrated and synthetic sources. I strongly believe that the supplement industry is hurting, not helping, the Western world’s health outlook. Interested in learning more? Follow along for updates and more shocking research as my husband and I undertake the 90-day No Supplement Challenge. No Supplements. No excuses.
*Always talk to your doctor if you have any questions about your own personal health and supplement use.