We all want to do what’s best for our health. We want to take care of ourselves and look for ways to live longer, happier, healthier lives. The hallmarks of a healthy lifestyle include good nutrition, adequate sleep, plenty of exercise and strong social connections. But, where do vitamins fit into all of this? Are they contributing to our health? Could they be hurting us?
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All About Vitamins
The vitamin industry is a big business, and some claims are made that are not supported by good medical evidence. Senior citizens are often the target of marketing materials, and according to a 2013 Gallup poll, 68 percent of people over 65 are taking vitamin supplements. Many of these folks are taking four or more supplements each day. There is real potential here for doing more harm than good. Keep in mind that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There is no “magic bullet” pill available that will make you Superman.
A Rainbow of Foods
The truth is that the best way to get the complete spectrum of vitamins and minerals we need is to eat a balanced diet, full of plant-based foods like fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. When scientists try to condense all the nutrients found in a well-balanced diet into a pill or two, they fall short. There is no way to reproduce the effect that good food has on our bodies. We know that fruits and vegetables, especially brightly colored ones, contain chemicals called phytonutrients that work together in ways that we do not fully understand to keep our body functioning properly.
Instead of a rainbow of supplements in your pill box, aim for a rainbow of colors on your plate. Try to choose a diet full of colorful, fresh foods every day. How about strawberries with breakfast, leafy green spinach in a salad at lunch, roasted dark purple eggplant with dinner and an orange for dessert? Adding a rainbow of foods like this to your diet packs a powerful punch when it comes to vitamins and minerals.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Unfortunately, there are instances where the vitamins we take can make us sicker. Supplements of Vitamin E, once thought to protect the heart, were later shown to increase the risk of heart failure, prostate cancer and death from any cause when taken in high doses. In fact, many vitamins taken in mega doses will cause harm. Too much supplemental calcium can cause kidney stones and may even increase the risk of heart disease. Just because something is natural, does not make it completely safe.
Talk to Your Doctor
It is important to talk to your primary care doctor about supplements you are taking or are considering taking. There are certainly cases where your doctor will suggest or prescribe vitamins for you. A daily multivitamin may be helpful for filling in gaps in a diet that is not as completed as it should be. We regularly prescribe folic acid to women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant because it is proven to help prevent birth defects. Others who may need supplements are those with anemia, a history of weight loss surgery or specific vitamin deficiencies.
Laughter is the Best Medicine
My philosophy as a physician is to be cautious when it comes to recommending anything without good medical evidence to support it. As more research comes out, our advice on the topic may change. For now, you can’t go wrong with working on improving the quality of foods you put into your body. Eat well, get moving, smile more and remember that laughter could just be the best medicine.