Doctor’s Tip: Get vitamins from your food, not pills
As discussed in the last two columns, vitamins are substances necessary in trace amounts for normal metabolic functioning of cells and the human body. With two exceptions, vitamins are made by plants, although because animals eat plants, vitamins are present in some animal products. The two exceptions are vitamin B12 made by bacteria in dirt, and vitamin D produced by our bodies when exposed to sun. Last week’s column was about vitamin B12 and the health tip column two weeks ago was about vitamin D.
How about minerals and other vitamins? They are clearly important for optimal health. In the distant past people suffered from diseases such as scurvy caused by lack of vitamin C, and beriberi due to deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine). In our part of the world, diseases due to deficiency of vitamins other than D and B12 are rare now.
In Western societies we like to practice what T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. (featured in the documentary “Forks Over Knives,” author of “The China Study”) calls reductionism. Different foods have been shown to cause certain health benefits, and we like to find the “magic bullet” responsible for these benefits, put it in a pill or capsule, market it and make millions in profits.
The problem is that nutrition doesn’t work that way. There are thousands of vitamins and other nutrients in various unprocessed plant foods, many of which remain unknown, and many of which work synergistically when the whole food is consumed. As Dr. Esselstyn (also featured in “Forks Over Knives,” author of “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”) puts it, if we eat a “symphony of plant-based food” our bodies have an amazing way of taking out what we need.
You cannot get the same thing in pill or capsule form. For example people who eat plants rich in vitamin E have less heart disease, but high doses of vitamin E in pill form cause heart disease. Vitamin A-containing food helps prevent cancer, but high doses in pill form increase certain cancers. Joel Fuhrman, M.D., author of several books including “Eat to Live,” notes that folic acid is the synthetic form of folate added to food and used in vitamin supplements. Whole foods with natural folate prevent disease, whereas “evidence suggests that folic acid supplementation may significantly increase the risk of cancer.”
Regarding minerals, In his book “Power Foods For The Brain” Neal Barnard, M.D. points out that:
The amount of copper we need is 0.9 mg, which can easily be obtained by eating greens, nuts, whole grains and mushrooms. There is evidence that larger doses from supplements or from cookware may contribute to Alzheimer’s.
Daily iron requirements can be obtained by eating greens, beans, whole grains and dried fruits, but too much from supplements and cookware may contribute to Alzheimer’s. (Note that women with heavy menses might need to supplement if their red blood count is low.)
We need 8-11 mg of zinc daily, with healthy sources being oatmeal, whole-grain bread, brown rice, peanuts, beans, nuts, peas and sesame seeds. Too much in pill form may contribute to Alzheimer’s.
Many studies have proven that vitamin/mineral supplements are not beneficial and may even be harmful. Yet one-third of Americans take these products and spend billions of dollars doing so. Here’s the bottom line:
As discussed in the previous two columns, many Americans are deficient in vitamin B12 and D and should therefore supplement (read the articles to find out the details).
We should be getting other vitamins and trace minerals the way we evolved to get them: in our food, by eating a variety of vegetables, fruit and whole grains.
If you eat animal products, eat more plant-based foods as well.
You cannot get from pills what you can get by eating a healthy diet.
A couple of caveats:
We should avoid salt because it harms the endothelial lining of blood vessels and eventually leads to high blood pressure. Years ago, in order to prevent goiters, guidelines were put in place to add iodine to commercial salt. If you don’t eat salt you can get iodine by eating seaweed every day, by eating Eden brand canned beans (contain a tiny bit of kelp), or by taking a 150 microgram supplement of iodine a day (especially important in pregnant and breast-feeding women).
If you are plant-based and want more details about vitamins and minerals, Dr. Michael Greger (nutritionfacts.org, author of “How Not to Die”) recommends a reference book by “the pre-eminent dietitians” Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina called “The Complete Guide to Adopting a Plant-Based Diet.”
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, now has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.