a pill for everything?

20 Dec

pill supplementationI am proud to report that I have been effectively dairy-free for 5 months. Not just lactose-free, but dairy-free. That means no lactose-free milk, no bread with whey in it… NO dairy at all. (I have indulged two or three times in a cheesy snack, and I paid for it immediately.)

The reactions I get from others about this topic are frustrating. Most people ask, “Are you lactose intolerant?” And I reply that I suspect I am, since ceasing dairy consumption has alleviated my digestive problems. They invariably reply with, “Oh jeez, I’m sorry. You know, they make pills now that you can take before you eat dairy so you don’t have such a bad reaction.”

Sometimes I try to explain that, first of all, I prefer to simply abstain from consuming a substance which my body obviously was not intended to process. And, second of all, after doing the research on dairy, I wouldn’t eat it even if I wasn’t lactose intolerant. Oftentimes I’m just not in the mood for the inevitable dairy debate and excuses like “I could never give up cheese”. People seem to get so defensive about dairy consumption, and refuse to consider that what they were taught as children – that milk “does a body good” – might not be accurate. Furthermore, my dietary choices seem to threaten their very lifestyles. Strange, but true. I hear vegans have the same dilemma when discussing their diet with others. So I just shrug and smile. That seems to dismiss the issue.

This frequent and repetitive conversation brings up a disturbing trend, however. Americans seem to be under the impression that there must be a pill which will cure (or mask) just about any ailment. Pharmaceuticals have their time and place, to be sure, but pills simply cannot replace healthful living.

In keeping with the purpose of this blog – to honestly examine my own wellness choices – I opened my cupboards to find a plethora of vitamin supplements. Calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, Vitamin C, B12, Vitamin E, Coenzyme Q10, Echinacea, fiber supplements… the list goes on and on. Honestly, the only one I take on a regular basis is the calcium citrate, while I learn how to incorporate more calcium-rich foods into my diet without dairy. But it got me thinking… how necessary is it to take vitamin supplements? Can these pills ever serve as a substitute for proper vitamin intake through nutrition?

The idea of vitamins is an appealing one to the average American; eat whatever you want, and don’t worry about its lack of nutritional value, because you can just take a pill to fill in the gaps. And when you think about it, most of the common foods in an American diet are devoid of essential vitamins and minerals. Heavy loads of starch, processed wheat, red meat, dairy, and other fatty foods are the staples of the so-called “western” diet. Nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fish are consumed scarcely. For a disturbing 44% of Americans, fast food is a regular habit. This diet poses a double threat:

  1. First and most obviously, weight gain is a common result of the western diet, leading to an astonishing adult 63.1% overweight/obesity rate in 2009. But that is a topic for another time.
  2. Secondly, most Americans are lacking sufficient nutrients in their diets.

So… can we pop a handful of pills to correct threat #2?

Research suggests that the answer is no. Vitamins in supplement form simply cannot replace naturally-occurring nutrients in wholesome foods.

whole foods for healthful livingTake apples for example. Apples are an excellent source of vitamin C, which is known to bolster the immune system. Vitamin C is one of the most common supplements taken in America. But when researchers at Cornell University compared the content of apples against that of vitamin C supplements, the results were quite startling.

Apples contain many other naturally-occurring elements in addition to vitamin C, including antioxidants which are believed to protect against cancer. This means that eating a small apple (100g) provides an antioxidant effect equivalent to taking a 1500mg dose of vitamin C supplementation. And unfortunately, vitamin C supplementation exceeding 1,000mg can cause intestinal cramping, diarrhea, and other digestive problems.

Dietitians, nutritionists, and holistic health practitioners all agree that it is preferable to obtain vitamins and minerals from food. As reported on NetDoctor.co.uk, spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation, Sarah Schenker, stated,

‘Although some groups of the population do require vitamins and supplements, a healthy diet is the best way to obtain the vitamins we need.

One of the most important pieces of advice we can give is to increase your fruit and vegetable consumption. These are the foods that are nutrient rich, vitamin rich and mineral rich. Current advice is to try to have five portions per day. This is quite a tall order and many people don’t even have half the recommended quantity.

It has been discovered that these foods contain far more than the classic vitamins and minerals we all know about. They contain many other plant substances, known as phytochemicals, which can’t be put in a bottle or made into a pill.’

The Mayo Clinic brings it all back to whole foods, a concept I discussed in an earlier post. Whole foods (not processed, pre-packaged, or restaurant food) provide a veritable cornucopia of health benefits, from naturally-occurring and easily-absorbed vitamins, to fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and essential minerals.

So you might be thinking, Sure I might not need vitamin supplements, but what will it hurt? Better to be safe than sorry. Well, vitamin supplements may not be as safe as you imagine, and your nutritional insurance policy could do more harm than good.

First, dietary supplements trick people into thinking they don’t need to maintain a healthy diet. After all, if you’re getting all the vitamins you needs from this handy pill, why do you need broccoli? This line of reasoning is deeply flawed, however. As mentioned above, whole foods contain many nutritional elements beyond the vitamins you can take in pill form. By relying solely on pills for vitamin intake, you miss out on antioxidants, fiber, and other elements essential for whole-body health.

Second, some supplements may actually endanger your health. According to a recent study, calcium supplements may increase the risk of heart disease. Megadoses of vitamin D in elderly patients has been shown to increase the incidence of bone fractures. Vitamins A, E, B and iron all have serious side-effects if taken in excess. Some multi-vitamins have even been found to be contaminated with lead up to 10x the allowable daily amount.

Bottom line: proper nutrition cannot be found in pill form. As usual, the simplest remedy is the best; whole, nutritious foods that are rich in naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals are the only way to maintain a healthful lifestyle. In other words, eat your fruits and vegetables. 😉

At a loss as to how to obtain proper nutrients from food? Try the following websites for in-depth information on essential vitamins in natural food-based form:

  1. WH Foods
  2. The Food Chart
  3. Health.gov
  4. FitWise

(Of course, I recommend only the non-dairy food sources listed on these sites.)

Footnote: vitamin supplements may be necessary for certain people, including pregnant women, housebound individuals, those with digestive disorders, and several other groups of people. The Mayo Clinic provides a list of suggestions for selecting supplements here. As always, consult a nutritionist, holistic health practitioner, or other doctor before setting up a nutritional supplement regimen.

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3 Responses to “a pill for everything?”

  1. Jenn December 21, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    Great Post! I feel your frustrations–especially regarding people’s response to not eating dairy! It continues to baffle me… But I digress. Anyway, I’m a physician who advocates I plant-based diet for everyone. As you clearly already know It’s truly the one best thing you can do for yourself. We just started an educational blog on plant-based diets recently and are creating a section to address some of these common “hurdles” if you will when discussing/educating the general population. Might you be interested in sharing your thoughts sometime in the future? Check us out, we would love to have to you! 🙂 veggie♥, Jenn (www.theplantrx.com)

    • ThisAmericanDiet December 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

      Thanks, Jenn! It is frustrating to discuss nutrition with folks, sometimes. I try to pick my audiences wisely. 😉 The worst part is, most of the time they ASK, but don’t really want to hear the answer! Anyway, thanks for stopping by, and I’ll definitely check out your new blog! In fact, I’ll add you to my blogrool. 😉

  2. tinako December 21, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

    Nice post. I also preferred not to “fix” my daughter’s lactose intolerance with a pill. Since I was already vegan, she didn’t come in contact with dairy very much. Eventually she decided she didn’t need the little bit she was getting at restaurants and went vegan.

    Have you read Michael Pollan on “Nutritionism”? (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/magazine/28nutritionism.t.html)

    T. Collin Campbell’s The China Study also promotes looking at dietary patterns instead of focusing on and researching nutrients. (Chapter 11 and index: “nutrition, confusion”)

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