Because vitamins and minerals are not evenly distributed among foods, people need to eat a well-balanced diet, high in "nutrient-dense" fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
However, few people eat the kind of varied, plant-rich diet needed to provide optimalor even minimallevels of all vitamins and minerals. And, modern farming techniques drain the soil of nutrients, making our fruits and vegetables less nutritious. (This is one reason for the popularity of produce grown in nutrient-rich organically cultivated soils.) The facts speak for themselves:
Benefits and uses: Proof that multivitamin-mineral supplements protect health continues to accumulate:
Taking a multi-vitamin pill for 15 years of more may reduce the risk of colon cancer by 75 percent, according to a study of 80,000 U.S. nurses.
Daily doses of multivitamin supplements have been found to cut fetal deaths, low birth weight, and pre-term births by 40 percent.
After years of foot-dragging in the face of persuasive evidence, in 1997 the U.S.FDA finally agreed that women who intend to become pregnant should be getting 400 mcg of supplemental folic acid (a B vitamin) per day, to reduce the risk of severe birth defects. The only way to ensure this intake level is to consume vitamin supplements or folate-fortified foods.
Studies show that women with the highest intake of folate and vitamin B6 may cut their heart disease risk in half compared to women with the lowest intake. Men and women taking levels of Vitamin E higher than can be obtained from food have lower rates of heart disease than those who ingest low doses do. (Over 800,000 Americans die of heart disease every year.)
Daily multivitamin supplements have been found to boost immune response by up to 60% in older people; Vitamin E supplementation has also been found to boost immune response in the elderly. One clinical trial indicates that nutritional supplements could halve the rate of infectious diseases among elderly persons.
Daily requirements: The best way to get your vitamins and minerals is through food. The only problem is, it's nearly impossible to get the optimal amounts of vitamins and minerals from your diet, no matter how good it is. And "optimal" doesn't mean the RDAs. The RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) were created as guidelines to vitamin and mineral requirements for healthy people, the average amount adequate to prevent deficiency diseases. They do not represent the amounts most researchers now believe are needed to achieve optimal health and help prevent a variety of diseases.
Deficiency risk factors: It is an accepted scientific fact that people have different nutritional needs based on genetics, weight, gender, age, health status, physical activity, and ability to absorb various nutrients. In particular, the RDAs are inadequate for the elderly and people who are ill, immune compromised, or on medication. The elderly are particularly at risk—and indeed many studies indicate that they often don't get the nutrients they need—because they not only absorb nutrients less easily but also consume fewer calories and thus fewer nutrients from food.
Then there are environmental factors. Pollution robs us of vital nutrients and increases our exposure to dangerous toxins, and physical or mental stress (which affects practically everyone these days) also weakens immunity and ups our nutritional needs.
Unfortunately, while our need for vitamins and minerals is only increasing, the nutritional content of our food is decreasing. Even if you eat the full complement of fresh produce, you may be getting far fewer vitamins and minerals than you imagine. Over-farming, over- fertilization, and reduced crop rotation all deplete fruits and vegetables of vital nutrients, as do food processing, refinement, storage, and cooking.
Optimal intake: All nutrients are crucial to good health, although some are needed in larger amounts. Well-formulated multi-vitamin and mineral supplements usually include balanced levels of nutrients at dosages that provide at least the RDA for all age groups. But higher levels of individual nutrients are believed to help prevent specific conditions. Calcium, for example, has been shown to help prevent brittle bones and osteoporosis when taken at levels beyond than the RDA.
Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, beta-carotene, zinc, copper, manganese, and selenium may provide significant protection from conditions ranging from wrinkles to heart disease and cancer. The amounts of these nutrients needed to provide preventive benefits is often beyond the intake levels obtainable from all but the most ideal diets.
Safety: Talk to your health practitioner before using supplements if you are pregnant or nursing or have an existing health condition. And remember, while more can sometimes be better, that's not always the case. Pay close attention to dosage recommendations and safe amounts for all supplements. Most multi-vitamin/mineral supplementseven high-potency formulascontain amounts that fall well within the safe dosage range for all but pregnant or lactating women.
No pill or powder can replace the nutritional goodness of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and fiber-rich grains, which offer health-promoting, disease-preventive fatty acids and phytochemicals. Supplements are intended, as the name indicates, to supplement a wholesome diet and to fill in the inevitable gaps. But as more and more studies show, they can do much more than that. Nutritional supplements may be our best medicine—the key to a whole new level of wellness.