Nutrition and Vitamins, Whole Foods vs. Supplements
The merits of consuming healthy foods for essential nutrients and why vitamin pills are unnecessary for good health and vision.
By Patrick Lahey – February 20, 2017
We are all aware of the importance of vitamins in a healthy diet, and so we ask doctors if vitamin pills will improve our health or our condition.
When it comes to vision, people associate vitamin A with sight; many photoreceptor proteins that help the eye see are derived from vitamin A.
But that does not mean more vitamin A ensures better vision, nor does it mean vitamin pills will improve one’s condition, because vitamin A deficiency often has little or nothing to do with one’s condition. In addition, there is an appropriate amount of vitamin A, which is true for all vitamins. Consumption exceeding the recommended amount of a vitamin ranges from unnecessary to toxic.
Thus the sheer amount of vitamins in one’s diet is not important as the quality and variety of the food providing those vitamins. Vitamin pills give us more than we need, and more does not equate to better. Balance is the key to proper nutrition.
Vitamins come in isoforms, which vary in structure and in function in the body. Certain isoforms are essential to our diet because they cannot be made from other isoforms. Vitamin B is found in 12 known isoforms, 8 of which we must receive through our diet. We want all eight essential isoforms of vitamin B, not excess of any single isoform.
Our bodies also require other nutrients, such as minerals like iron and zinc. These are required in low abundance, but are nevertheless necessary for a healthy diet. Fruits and vegetables maintain these nutrients in naturally occurring ratios, so their consumption provides the nutrients that we need in appropriate balance.
Some nutrients help us absorb other nutrients, so consuming them together is better. For example, zinc is known to aid in vitamin A absorption and metabolism. Vitamin A deficiency is more likely without sufficient zinc in one’s diet.
Other nutrients inhibit the absorption of others because both are absorbed by the body through the same mechanism. When one’s digestive tract is flooded with an excess of one nutrient, the other nutrient absorbed the same way is much less likely to be absorbed. For instance, excess vitamin A can block the uptake of vitamin K, and excess calcium can inhibit the absorption of iron and zinc.
Vitamin A is one of four fat-soluble vitamins, meaning it is stored and transported in fat instead of water. Thus when fat-soluble vitamins are consumed in excess they cannot be eliminated through urine. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are the fat-soluble vitamins that can be problematic or even toxic when consumed in high volume because the body cannot rid itself of the excess. For these vitamins especially overabundance can result in reduced health.
When pills lack the proper balance of nutrients, the body may not absorb scarce vitamin isoforms or other essential vitamins and minerals that share the same absorption pathways. When one takes vitamin pills with fat-soluble vitamins too often those essential vitamins may accumulate to toxic levels in the body. So vitamin pills are not necessary for good nutrition, and they can even reduce our health.
For the average person these subtleties may prove difficult to keep in mind, therefore we recommend consuming fruits, vegetables and other whole foods to get the necessary nutrients. It is unwise to believe vitamin pills will help ensure that we get all the nutrients we need. Studies have found that vitamin-takers actually have higher mortality rates than non-takers1, so trusting vitamin pills is an unnecessary risk when whole foods possess the proper balance and variety of nutrients without any associated increased mortality.
Vitamins are essential in our diet; some are better than none. Consuming the water-soluble vitamins B and C in excess is healthier than consuming less and risking deficiency. For instance, the benefit of preventing neural tube defects by taking vitamin B9 folic acid prenatal supplements is always recommended for pregnant mothers. For the fat-soluble vitamins, deficiencies are still worse than moderate excess. In extreme cases, like when diet is limited by socioeconomics and local abundance in underdeveloped nations, vitamin A pills easily prevent vitamin A deficiency and night blindness where vitamin A rich food is unavailable.
Aside from these special cases, we recommend primarily sourcing nutrients from whole foods, because the food source itself maintains its nutrients in life-sustaining ratios.
1. Hitt, Emma PhD, Vitamin Supplements Associated with Increased Risk of Death, Medscape 2011