The Great Debate: Are Supplemental Vitamins BS or What?

I’m one of those weirdos who hated Flinstones multi-vitamins as a kid. Whether it was Pebbles or Fred I was biting down on, I didn’t care. I would have much rather eaten dirt or brussel sprouts, for that matter, which in turn worked out for everyone. I was never malnourished as a kid; my parents did their part in sneaking in vegetable and fruits in my diet, my mom squeezing fresh oranges a few times a week and me plucking the sour gooseberries from our backyard bushes and popping them into my mouth one by one. Fast forward 16 years and I can’t get enough nutritious food. Between jobs, school and LIFE, I seriously don’t have time to eat the preposterously suggested amount of fruits and vegetables. Who am I kidding. I can. I’m just LAZY.

Since I’m hopeless like so many Americans are with their diets, I decided to start taking multi-vitamins. I usually get the kind that taste like gummy bears so that I wouldn’t have deal with monster pills the size of my old flip phone. I also try to integrate fish oil and extra vitamin B supplements into my life, because of their rumored benefits.  I’m a healthy 23 year old girl; I exercise when I don’t have papers to grade, only eat at Taco Bell when I’m PMSing and on the verge of bursting into tears every hour, eat a more or less balanced diet, and only get sick once a year. So when I read this article in the New York Times, I was initially skeptical.

The article, boisterously titled, “Don’t Take Your Vitamins”, suggests that some vitamins, since they are not FDA approved, have a negative effect on users. The article states:

A few years ago, I had a sociology professor tell me never to trust numbers – statistics, to be precise. He literally made us return our books we ordered and in turn, we read hundreds of scanned pages per week that he deemed trustworthy. Keeping this in mind, I wanted to know where the beta carotene came from, and if these smokers were already destined to die from lung cancer and heart disease anyway. Did they smoke more than the other smokers that didn’t die? What other food were these men eating? What were their lifestyles like, and was all of this documented?

The article also pointed out that:

Beta carotene is found in brightly colored fruits such as mangoes, carrots and sweet potatoes, a nutrient that has been famously good for us. So why are scientists suddenly finding deadly flaws within these nutrients that seem to be accelerating lung cancer with unhealthy patients while decreasing mortality rates with non-smokers?

According to the New York Times article, this problem is called the “antioxidant paradox”. Okay, this is where I whip out my Bio 101 knowledge from college and take a stab at helping us all understand what happens within our bodies.

Basically, antioxidation versus oxidation takes place in the mitochondria (this is where the  body converts food to energy, and this requires oxygen). A not-so-great thing that can happen in the process is the creation of atomic scavengers called free radicals, which are EVIL. They damage DNA, cell membranes and the lining of arteries. All of this chaos has been linked to aging, cancer and heart disease. To balance all this out, this is where antioxidants come in to play (you know, the good stuff in blueberries and pomegranates). Antioxidants are actually FOUND in beta carotene! As well as vitamins A, C, and E. People who eat fruits and veggies with these nutrients  have a lower risk in getting cancer and heart disease. HOWEVER, it doesn’t work the same way when people skip out on real fruits and veggies and substitute them with pills.

Although scientists are not 100%, they think this difference between nutrients found in produce and nutrients found in pills is that when people take large doses of antioxidants in pill form, “the balance between radical production and destruction might tip too much in one direction, causing an unnatural state where the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders.” So yes, too much of a good thing is BAD, apparently.

Are you one of those people that frantically run to the grocery store whenever they feel a case of the sniffles coming on? I know I am. Vitamin C that can be conveniently packaged as raspberry flavored powder may also be proven useless. Research shows that there isn’t any real evidence from clinical trials (11,350) that proves cold/flu prevention.  Once praised as a cancer fighting nutrient, vitamin C is starting to gain a bad rep. In fact, according to the Cancer Research UK, “some research even suggests that high doses of antioxidants can make cancer treatment less effective, reducing the benefits of radiotherapy and chemotherapy,” perhaps due to the antioxidant paradox. Another study was done that involved more than 11,000 people who took at least 200 mg of vitamic C every single day. The results concluded that the vitamin didn’t protect or reduce the severity of common colds unless these people were extremely physically active.

On the other hand, studies were done concerning fish oil supplements, and it started out with a comparison between the U.S. and Japan. Japan consumes 154 pounds of fish a year, while Americans only a mere 16. Since the U.S. and Japan have relatively similar levels of stress, scientists implored the difference in health between the two countries and discovered that Japan has one of the lowest rates of bipolar disorder (.07% of the population compared to the U.S.’s 4.4%, one of the highest rates in the world). The theory here, is that the more fish oil, the healthier and balanced our brains are; studies even suggests that consuming more fish oil decreases the chances of depression and ADD. Luckily, there haven’t been too many debates on this supplement; at least 20 studies have shown positive correlations between consuming fish oil supplements and improved mental health.  The omega-3 fatty acids have been scientifically reported to reduce teenage psychosis to clearing skin to promoting hair health.  Although scientists claim that there are no guarantees, the supplement seems to have a positive effect on its consumers.

The verdict: unfortunately, there just aren’t enough studies done to completely justify taking vitamins. Except fish oil. Fish oil seems to be legitimately helpful as supplements go. Overall though, it seems as though scientists and doctors can agree that getting your vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables is more beneficial than taking a pill. It doesn’t help anyone’s case that vitamins are just not FDA approved; no one has any power or oversight over these vitamin corporations except for the corporations themselves, which is sketchy, at least to me. Countless studies have been done concerning the wide variety of vitamins, and nothing absolutely conclusive has been found. Once again, it’s important to question numbers. Always question numbers. Who is doing the testing? Who are the people we are testing on? Many research groups resent homeopathic/natural remedies and may be more inclined to skew results. Or perhaps we really should be weary of these expensive pills and gummies we put into our bodies.

What do you think, Gigglers? Are you pro or anti vitamins? Do you believe in the hype? Are you just as torn as I am?

Featured image via Katy Perry’s Twitpic