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Folly of Mega-Dose Supplements
By Gary F. Zeolla
This two-part article is continued from Folly of Mega-Dose Supplements: Part One.
Claims of Mega-Dose Advocates
This second half of this article will look at claims of those who advocate mega-doses supplements.
Most of us, including the health care professionals who advise us, believe food is the best source of nutrients, but the truth is that none of us eat an optimal diet all of the time (Josephs, p.21).
The claim here is that no one eats a healthy diet all of the time, so everyone needs to supplement their diet. But this sweeping statement simply is not true. I eat a healthy diet all of the time, and so do many other people. Moreover, as I write in my God-given Foods Eating Plan book, "In no way can supplements make up for an unhealthy diet" (p15).
If you don't eat fruits and vegetables, taking a 500 mg vitamin C pill won't replace them. An orange, for example, has not just vitamin C, but at least 5 percent of a day's worth of calcium, potassium, vitamin B-1, and vitamin A, and 10 percent of a day's folate, not to mention three grams of fiber and all sorts of phytochemicals that [a supplement company] hasn't figured out how to squeeze into a pill (Nutrition Action, p. 9).
Foods are complex blends of chemicals and the idea that if you have a poor diet you can fix it with a pill containing one or two ingredients has always been naïve (Highfield).
In addition, even if taking a supplement would make up for an unhealthy diet, this does not then mean that a mega-dose supplement is required. All that would be needed to make up the difference would be a supplement containing 100% of the DV for a variety on nutrients.
Worse yet, our soils have become so depleted that plants cannot extract all of the vital minerals they once did (Josephs, p.21).
Our farms and range soils are so depleted of nutrients as a result of 100 to 200 years of intensive farming without appropriate mineral replacement. Why is it they cannot seem to make the connection that the food on their plate is anemic in nutrients? (Crain, p.90).
Both of these quotes are making the same claim, due to depleted soils, food not longer contains adequate amounts of nutrients. Almost identical statements can be found throughout the Internet, each site just repeating the claims of another. But none of these books or Web sites provides any actual evidence via laboratory analysis of foods to show that these claims are true.
Now it is true, "The selenium content of food is dependant on the selenium content of the soil in which the food is grown and can vary 200-fold" (Somer, p. 114). But for most other vitamins and minerals, the truth is, if the soil is depleted of nutrients, the plants simply will not grow, or the plants will not grow as large and will produce smaller fruits and harvests. But on a per volume basis, the result crops will contain the same amount of nutrients.
The availability of soil nutrients sets limits to plant growth rate (Aikio).
The food that plants use to grow is beginning to run out from the soil and the plants become smaller and smaller and weaker and weaker (Agronomy).
However, there is some evidence that foods grown organically have greater nutrient content than those grown with conventional methods, which is to say, with chemical fertilizers (Nutritional Farming). So if you are concerned about depleted soils, then spend your money on organic produce rather than on mega-dose supplements. Moreover, even if all our foods are somehow depleted of nutrients, this would still not support the taking of mega-dose supplements. Again, a simple 100% DV type of supplement would suffice to make up for the lack of nutrients in the foods.
Even the anti-supplement American Medical Association recommends a multi-vitamin for every man, woman and child for exactly the same reasons I've laid out here: We simply aren't getting the nutrition we need from our food (Josephs, p.22).
True, the AMA recommends a multi-vitamin mineral supplement. But what they recommend is a supplement like mentioned above, one that contains 100% of the DV for a variety on nutrients.
The idea here is to take such a multi as an "insurance" to be sure you are not "missing" one or more vital nutrients. Even with following a healthy diet, it is possible that do to particular food likes and dislikes or food availability, you might miss eating foods that contain a particular nutrient. But that's it. The AMA recommendation in no supports the taking of mega-dose supplements.
Mega-Dose Supplements vs. Nutrients from Food
Putting all of the information from Part One together, it explains why mega-dose supplements can be dangerous, and why I began to feel worse after taking such supplements for a period of time.
First, without the "helper" or syncretistic elements naturally found in foods with nutrients, the nutrients are not functioning properly. "It is now believed that the ‘unknown' co-factors found in natural vitamins, not found in synthetic forms, act as catalysts which make the vitamins more effective."
Research indicates that synthetic vitamins may actually cause nutritional deficiencies. When you take a synthetic vitamin, it needs the co-factors normally found in the whole food, in order to complete its action. If they are not in the foods you eat, it will draw the co-factors from your body. You may feel good for a while but when the co-factors run out, you will begin to feel worse (Center For Health Education and Research).
Third, the various nutrients in food function together in a syncretistic fashion. I have the following quote in the chapter on whole grains in my book, "In addition to the health benefits of the individual nutrients, there is evidence nutrients work together to fight disease. This process is called whole grain synergy" (University of Minnesota).
I then comment, "There is no way to duplicate this ‘whole grain synergy' through the ‘enrichment' process. We simply cannot duplicate all of the beneficial elements that God put into our food and the way God designed them to work together" (p.48). What I say here about the enrichment of refined grains would apply to supplements as well.
As CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta puts it:
We've been sort of coerced into a lot of supplements and antioxidants. People want to do right by their bodies, but there's no scientific [proof] that stuff really works. The vitamins in what we eat are great, but something gets lost putting them into pill form (TV Guide, p. 60, brackets in original).
The Early Show's medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay states about a recent study that found no benefit from antioxidant supplements:
"It leads the authors of this latest study to wonder if complex antioxidants in actual food are somehow able to fight heart disease more effectively than the antioxidants found in vitamin supplements," she said. "Pill-makers just may not be able to match mother nature" (KDKA).
However, do not take this information as meaning you need to take a supplement with "food-based" nutrients. There are many who promote such supplements, with claims they are better absorbed and utilized than "synthetic" nutrients. That simply is not true. Such supplement are still "unnatural" as the nutrients are extracted from foods, and thus not the same as being in the original food with all of the naturally occurring nutrients and other factors.
Moreover, the body cannot tell the difference between synthetic or so-called natural nutrients, but your bank account will. Supplements with such "natural" nutrients are extremely expensive, often costing $50-100 for one month's supply. That money would be much better spent on real food, which is a far superior way to get your nutrients.
Starting and Stopping Mega-Dose Supplements
It was mentioned in Part One that some feel better when first taking a mega-dose supplement. This was my experience. In such cases, it is possible that we were deficient in one or more nutrients, and the mega-dose supplement quickly corrected it. But in such cases, there is no reason to take the mega-dose indefinitely. A simple correction in diet or a low dose supplement is all that would then be needed to prevent the deficiency from reoccurring.
There are also many who are currently taking a mega-dose supplement that claim they feel terrible if they stop taking it. That was also my experience, at least initially. So what is happening here?
Going back to thiamin, you only need 1.5 mg a day; any more than that is simply excreted. So if your diet contains 1.5 mg and you are taking a supplement containing 50 mg of thiamin for an extended period of time, your body gets used to excreting just about all of that extra thiamin, which is to say, over 95% of the thiamin you are taking in is excreted.
When you stop taking the supplemental thiamin, you would now only be getting the normal 1.5 mg from your diet. But it takes a while for your body to readjust, so for a short while your body still excretes 95%. As a result, you are only absorbing a minute amount compared to your needs. But give it several days, and your body will readjust and start absorbing what you need.
This effect is definitely seen with at least some nutrients:
When a high intake of vitamin C is discontinued suddenly, the body may perceive this as a deficiency. It is a type of withdrawal effect, and could be particularly serious in a newborn whose mother took large amounts during pregnancy (Parsonnet, p.46).
Excessive doses [of vitamin B6] are toxic to the nervous system, and cause numbness and tingling of the hands and feet and unsteadiness in walking. Dependency can also develop so that rapid withdrawal of substantial doses may produce deficiency symptoms which in turn may again harm the nervous system (Parsonnet, p.51).
"A Little Extra"
In the final chapter of my Eating Plan book, I present a week's worth of my own eating plan. I then evaluate my diet for a variety of vitamins and minerals. The results show that I am consuming well over the RDA for a man my age for all nutrients. I then comment, "This is what happens when you consume a variety of God-given foods; you attain all the nutrients your body needs from food" (p.25).
Given that fact and the problems I encountered with supplements, I struggled with if that meant I would be best off not taking any vitamin/ mineral supplements whatsoever. But as indicated above, there is some wisdom to the idea of taking a basic 100% DV supplement as an "insurance" against deficiencies.
Moreover, I also wrote in my book, "This is not to say there is not a place for supplements. But they are just that, a way to supplement or to add a little ‘extra' to a healthy diet. In no way can supplements make up for an unhealthy diet" (p. 15). So that is why I looked into taking a basic supplement with just 100% of the DV for various nutrients.
There are many such supplements popularly available. However, they often contain artificial colorings and other artificial ingredients. As I discuss in my book, by definition, such ingredients are not natural or "God-given" and are best avoided. For me, this is especially important as I am allergic to most artificial colorings. So what I am now taking is CVS: Daily Multiple Tablets For Men, as it does not contain artificial colorings or other artificial ingredients. I probably don't even need that, but it only costs a few pennies a day. And yes, the nutrients in such a supplement can be absorbed and utilized by the body, as discussed in an Update to the article the preceding link will take you to. Anything more than that is a waste of money.
Taking mega-dose supplements is neither natural nor wise. But there might be some benefit to taking a basic supplement with just 100% of the DV for a variety of nutrients.
Agronomy - Soil Fertility and Crop Nutrition.
Aikio, Sami. Plant adaptive strategies in relation to variable resource availability, soil microbial processes and ecosystem development.
Center For Health Education and Research. Natural vs. Synthetic Vitamins.
Crain, Ricky Dale. Xtreme Squatting. Crain's Muscle World, Limited: Shawnee, OK, 2005.
Highfield, Roger. Vitamin pills are no substitute for healthy diet.
Jospehs, Allen S. Natural Cures. USA, 2006.
KDKA.com. Study: Taking Vitamins No Boost To Heart Health. Aug 14, 2007.
Nutrition Action, "Designed to Sell. October 2006, p. 9.
Parsonnet, Mia. M.D. What's in Our Food? Madison books: New York, 1996.
Somer, Elizabeth, M.A., R.D. The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals. New York: HarperPaperback, 1992.
TV Guide April 9-15, 2007.
Zeolla, Gary F. God-given Goods Eating Plan. © 2007 by Gary F. Zeolla.
Folly of Synthetic, Mega-Dose Supplements: Part Two. Copyright © 2008 by Gary F. Zeolla.
The above article first appeared in the free
FitTips for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site June 1, 2008.
It was updated June 21, 2014.
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