I do not take vitamins, and not only because I have a hard time swallowing them (they are always giant). It’s pretty ingrained in our culture to make multi-vitamins a part of your morning routine. But how, why? Why are we taking these pills every day?
Surely it had to do with something about lifespan and rickets & scurvy… right? But who gets rickets anymore? Wait, let me qualify that – who gets rickets in first world countries anymore?* Malnutrition in second and third world countries is a whole other topic.
EATING IS MATH!
While vitamin and mineral deficiency has certainly been responsible for a number of illnesses and diseases, if you’re eating a consistently well balanced diet with lots of vegetables, fruit and whole grains, you are most likely getting what you need. Which is great, because it means less math at the dinner table and math is definitely one of my weak points. It’s a bit of a losing battle to try and make sure that your meals have all the things they’re supposed to, in the amounts recommended for each.
There are a few that get mentioned over and over – the B group, C, Zinc, A, E – an alphabetical hit list of modern solutions to common problems. Feeling like you’re getting a cold? Stock up on some vitamin C. Feeling lethargic? Maybe some added zinc will help you out. Can’t sleep? Try magnesium. But make sure you get the one with calcium added so it works better. It’s a labyrinth of combinations and dosages. Do I buy the D in liquid, gel or tablet form? 1000UI, 2000UI or x2 500UI a day?
Figuring out the brand/combination/dosage is a lot of trial and error to find what makes a difference (either real or placebo) for you. On top of that, you might have some intolerance issues that crop up when choosing. In a commercial tablet, you can find starch or cellulose as a binder, sugar or food colouring, silicone dioxide for flow, and sometimes lactose as a stabilizer. Cellulose is often added, as is magnesium stearate and carnauba wax for that shiny finish. If you’re sensitive to any of these things, it might be a concern.
Regardless of your level of tolerance to those additives, the next issue is that while there are some vitamins that come from natural sources, many are made with synthetic ingredients.
Consider the fact that when you ingest Vitamin C from a natural source, you’re also getting all the enzymes, minerals and other vitamins that naturally occur in those sources. They help your body recognize, absorb and metabolize them in an efficient and useful way. When you get it from a synthetic source, you are taking an isolated vitamin with none of those other elements. We already know that some vitamins and minerals work better together – which is why you often see calcium & magnesium pre-packaged together. It’s also recommended that you take calcium with vitamin D because they are more effective when combined. But those are only two out of the zillions of compounds in each whole food.
YOU ARE A CHEMICAL FACTORY
It’s not just the source of the vitamins or minerals that can have an effect – once you ingest them, there is a whole series of other factors that influence how your body uses them. What else you ate that day, drank, stress levels, what part of the world you’re in, the quality of the food you’re ingesting, etc. Your body is a giant ongoing chemical process, and everything you put in it affects everything else.
In that sense, trying to stock up on one isolated vitamin or mineral doesn’t make much sense when you have millions of reactions going on at all times with the millions of compounds in each food. These are complex interactions that we’re only just beginning to understand. Self-diagnosing the lack of one particular vitamin in any one specific combination seems a bit hit and miss when the entire complexity of the process is taken into account. Yes, there are multi-vitamins, but again, they are a few dozen isolated parts of the many elements (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, enzymes, etc) that you need.
UGH, NOW WHAT?
So, what to do instead? Easier said than done, but I try to eat pretty healthy. Consider that the approximate amount of vitamin C for an adult is recommended to be around 90mgs. It fluctuates depending on age, gender, pregnancy, but hovers around that number. Yes, you could take a vitamin. Or, you could get that amount of vitamin C (and, bonus, all the accompanying enzymes, vitamins and other potentially unknown synergistic elements) in any one of the following:
• 1 guava
• 10 slices of yellow pepper
• ½ a green pepper.
• 1 cup of kale
• 1½ cups watercress
• 1 cup broccoli
• 1 kiwi
• ½ medium papaya
• 1 orange
• 1 cup strawberries
As a bonus, these whole foods also offer you a cornucopia of other things that you might want. Kale is full of fiber, vitamin B6, magnesium, vitamin A, K, copper, potassium, and iron (among others). Kiwis are a great source of antioxidants, vitamin E, and A. Oranges also have fiber, pectin, antioxidants, A, B complex, potassium and even a bit of calcium. You get the idea.
There are times when I do take a supplement. For example, when I’m traveling and I know I’ll be eating out a lot, and perhaps not the most healthy meals. When I do, I take a whole foods organic complex. After some trial and error (there are a few kinds out there), I personally like New Chapter Organics Every Woman. They’re big tablets, but don’t have a ton of refinement and include a bunch of bonuses like maca, red clover, clove, spinach, blueberry. tumeric, and so on. Other times I’ve taken a green powder with me (or tablets if space is an issue) like Amazing Grass’ Green Superfood. Everyone’s body responds differently. I know some people prefer other brands, these are just what work for me, and I like the companies as well. But the idea is that these are backups, for when you can’t eat as well as you might like.
YOU CAN DO IT
Unfortunately for some, that’s not always a choice they have the luxury of making. But if you’re living in a city, and you have decent exposure to some farmer’s markets and grocery stores, you have all the access you need to eat what you need in food instead of pill form. Next time you reach for that bottle of Vitamin C, have an orange instead. Want to boost your zinc? Couple ounces of pumpkin seeds and a bit of dark chocolate fulfill the recommended amount. Not only will you get the target nutrient that you’re looking for, but all the accompanying minerals, enzymes, phytochemicals, amino acids and myriad other known – and unknown – elements in whatever it is you’re eating. Plus, food is delicious.
Don’t try to keep track – just eat well. Whole foods heavy in all different colours of vegetables (different colours indicate different vitamins & minerals), fruit, grains, small amounts of fish and meat if you eat it.
You’ll have more energy, glowing skin, and a healthy body. Eating well is a pretty easy way to look and feel great (see what I did there?).
Now go make a salad.
*Rickets have actually made a comeback in some parts of North America and Europe. Thought to be eradicated in the ’30’s, there were about 80ish (depending on what study you read) cases in Canada in the last ten years. Kids used to get it from living in dark industrial cities in the 1800’s, but now they’re getting it from lack of unprotected sun exposure. Fifteen minutes of sun exposure with no sunscreen a few times a week, between 10am-2pm, should get you the vitamin D you need. Terrible disease to have, especially when the solution is to go play outside more often. That’s a prescription I think we can all get behind.