Do We Take Too Many Vitamins? (Or Not Enough?)

Do We Take Too Many Vitamins? (Or Not Enough?)

The field of vitamin science is, shall we say, hotly-contested. On one side are the Vitamin Atheists. Those who scoff at the very idea of a vitamin pill having any useful effect. These are the folks - many of them doctors - who cheerfully tell you that the only effect of vitamins is "expensive pee."

On the other side we have the True Believers. These are the people with the Super Supplements punch card (buy 20 giant buckets of vitamins, get one free!). The ones who have a punishing pill schedule. The ones who scoff at the idea of a multivitamin as insufficient. Here, try this plastic packet of 10 different mysterious pills and gel capsules, instead!

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle. For example, every day I take a multivitamin and a vitamin D supplement (I live at a northern latitude where it's strongly recommended). I have bottles of vitamin C and zinc supplements on hand, in case I feel like I'm coming down with something.

Every so often I become intrigued by the claims for a supplement, and I try something new. Invariably I decide that it's way too much expense and trouble for the benefits, which I never notice, anyway. I always end up back at my old standard: multivitamin and a D.

According to CNN, nationwide our vitamin usage has increased significantly over the last 10 years. Half of Americans take some kind of supplement, a 42% increase from 1988.

This isn't much of a mystery. For one thing, our population is aging as the Boomers creep towards retirement. And old people, god bless 'em, love their vitamins.

For another thing, more Americans lack health care than ever before. Couple that with a difficult economy and heck yeah, people are taking vitamins. I bet more people are flossing now than they used to. (I know that I am about a thousand times more diligent with the flossing than when I had a dental plan and could afford to see the dentist for regular check-ups.)

I doubt few people would argue that it's better to eat right (and get your vitamins from healthy food) than to take an artificial supplement. But it's just not realistic for most of us. We're all doing our best to eat right, but… there are gaps.

Of course, as Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore's Dilemma, we have very little evidence that putting those nutrients into pill form actually does any good. Just as an example, it seems that taking lutein as a supplement divorced from its sources - out of context, if you will - provides none of the benefits of lutein taken by eating a tomato.

The general consensus is that taking one or two supplements a day probably won't hurt you, and might help. But if your supplements budget is creeping up, or if you have a bucket of supplements you take every day, then your money could be better spent in other ways - like a gym membership, or a new pair of walking shoes! Exercise is unequivocally good for you, and we certainly all could do with a lot more of it.

Photo credit: Flickr/TheKarenD