We’ve been told we need them and we’ve been told we might as well eat cardboard. Scattered within that simplistic dichotomy is a series of truths, half-truths, misread data and marketing gimmicks.
Nutrition, in particular, fitness nutrition, is one of the most confusing and contradictory of subjects. The overriding question is; do we get optimal nutrition from food or must we supplement? There is precious little consensus among ‘experts’, trainers, athletes and the medical community about which supplements should be taken, when we should take them, in what combinations and in what amounts. Most agree that anyone following a regular training routine, one that includes resistance training, should supplement with protein. Beyond that, opinions diverge. Micronutrients, those we typically refer to as vitamins and minerals, are especially confounding. Let’s deconstruct the concept of taking a daily multi-vitamin supplement.
Some Background to Supplements
It is well documented that being deficient in particular vitamins contributes to disease. A Harvard report noted that “scurvy killed more sailors than all battles, storms and other diseases combined from the 16th to 18th centuries.” It wasn’t until researchers determined the vitamin C in citrus prevented scurvy that the deaths abated.
Most doctors in western cultures will advise pregnant women to supplement with a multi-vitamin containing folic acid – a B vitamin – which is critical during prenatal care for the prevention of defects in the fetal brain and spine. A side effect is that many women also experience thicker, more lustrous hair. This could be caused by: an existing deficiency, an effect of the pregnancy per se or a combination of factors. Sorry guys, men with thinning hair can’t become Sampson by taking pre-natal vitamins!
I’ve benefited from taking a B complex. For decades I suffered from small, painful eruptions in my mouth, mostly on the back and side of my tongue. They assaulted me 8-10 times a year and lasted for several days. They were very painful and made eating difficult. I’d heard they were caused by physical and mental stress, and they did appear more often when I was tired but I also read these lesions may be caused by a deficiency in B-vitamins, so I gave it a shot. Since I started taking a daily B complex, I have eliminated the problem. I haven’t had them in over five years.
Particular vitamins under circumstances in which a deficiency has been diagnosed have been proven to alleviate symptoms and prevent debilitating and deadly diseases. We all have our anecdotal evidence to support our case to take them. However…
When is Enough, Enough?
Do we get sufficient amounts of the vitamins our bodies need to function optimally from nutrition alone? In most western, relatively prosperous societies, yes — mostly. We are still lacking because of our zeal for fast and processed foods. It’s when we start looking at developing nations that we begin to see a greater prevalence of deficiencies in iron, B-6/12, D, magnesium and folate, in part due to lack of dairy and meat, but also a lack of diversity in fresh vegetables and whole grains.
But what exactly is a healthy diet? A recent article in the NY Times cited a healthy diet as not much more than guesswork and highlighted how little doctors know of nutrition, much less about supplementing that nutrition. According to European Food Safety Authority, “Poor diets and low levels of physical activity can lead to a number of chronic conditions.” Poor diets cause deficiencies and those deficiencies cause problems. That’s a fact, but it’s important to note; once we meet necessary micronutrient levels, taking extra doesn’t help. What are those levels? Here’s a few sites to guide you:
- WHO guidelines http://www.who.int/publications/guidelines/nutrition/en/
- European Food Safety Authority http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/drv
- US/FDA guidelines http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/
Through diet and supplementation, the average Joe can maintain RDAs and RDIs, which are the recommended amounts for staving off creepy stuff such as scurvy and rickets and help to keep our various systems running effectively.
More Is Not Always Better
We shouldn’t waste precious personal resources on mega-dose vitamin packs. More is not always better and much more can be dangerous.
Here are two analogies to illustrate this point: Professor Malcolm Gladwell wrote about height and performance metrics in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in his book, Outliers. The research demonstrates, in order to be competitive in the NBA, a player should stand at least 6’4″, ~193cm. However, being taller does not equate to better performance. There is nothing in the data that shows extra height, beyond the minimum, brings any greater performance results. In fact, one of the league’s best players, Stephen Curry, is only 6’3″.
If you are thirsty you’d certainly like a full glass of cool water. But overfilling that glass does nothing for you and wastes water. This is what happens with vitamins; we use what we need and waste the remainder.
We know vitamin supplements work, because they have been shown both clinically and anecdotally to have positive effects, primarily in specific situations or in response to common deficiencies. So how do we know we’re getting what we need?
What can we do today? How do we assess our needs?
Account for what you eat (everything) for at least 7-10 days, including the vitamin profile of the foods. We all have smart phones and simply ‘asking Google’ will find you the nutritional profiles of all your daily intake of food – it’s too easy not to do it. Then, supplement what is likely deficient in your diet, either through food or individual micronutrient supplements. If you eat no dairy and get no sun, you might need vitamin D. Vegans may have iron deficiencies. You get the idea.
Still unsure? Take a low-dose multi-vitamin supplement every other day. I see no reason to do more. Read the labels. Do your own research. There are companies such as LabDoor.com that conduct clinical tests of supplements and rate them based on label accuracy, efficacy and other metrics. It’s, again, too easy not to.
You can get a multitude of vitamins from eating lean protein, fresh fruits, non-white carbs and a variety of vegetables. The NIH says an ideal multi-vitamin would help fill gaps in nutrient adequacy though there is an interesting irony: those considering supplementing with multi-vitamins are likely to be eating fairly well, and “those who might benefit the most are least likely to take them.” Americans in particular, despite fairly wide access to healthy foods, tend to eat a diet that is not nutrient dense. The largest deficiencies are potassium, fiber, calcium and vitamin D.
Which supplements you take and in what quantities depends on what you are deficient in; some self-assessment is required. The good news is that conducting that assessment is easy. If you’ve made a commitment to living an optimal lifestyle, to flourish rather than “hangin’ in there”, then you can make the effort to understand what you’re eating and where you are lacking.
But don’t make yourself nuts over it. Unless you are suffering through a cloud of malaise and chronic ailments, you are probably getting most of what you need. Your best program will help you hit those minimums; doing so will make you feel a whole lot better.