Beware of vitamins as quick fixes
Published 4:10 pm Wednesday, April 5, 2006
By By Carolyn Bivins – Extension Agent
Americans, it seems, are always looking for a quick fix - some way to dispense with unwanted pounds, wrinkles, blemishes and sundry other ailments and irritations with a minimal degree of effort.
At the top of this quick-fix list are vitamin and mineral supplements, even though, as nutritionists are learning, the consequences may be self-defeating and even risky, especially in cases where users are vastly exceeding the recommended daily allowances for these nutrients.
As nutritional researchers have learned over the years, there is an optimal range within which vitamins and minerals benefit us - getting too little or too much of them often invites trouble.
History abounds with examples of bad things that happened to people who didn't get enough of the essential nutrients.
Eighteenth century sailors on long sea voyages often suffered from scurvy, a disease, typically reflected in bleeding gums, which stemmed from insufficient levels of vitamin C in the diet.
Likewise, beriberi, a nervous system disorder common among inmates of Japanese prisoner of war camps in World War II, was caused from insufficient levels of thiamin in the diet.
Excessive levels of some vitamins and nutrients, on the other hand, bring their own set of problems. A shining example is vitamin A, which, at normal doses, is beneficial to vision and bone growth, but at excessive levels can induce headaches and vomiting.
In other cases, the symptoms often go largely unnoticed - a problem recently revealed in cases where people were consuming too much vitamin E.
As it turns out, researchers now believe consuming 400 or more IUs of vitamin E on a daily basis may put one at greater risk of heart disease and cancer, according to Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutritionist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.
However, they now believe roughly 200 IUs a day or less may be a more optimal or desirable range for vitamin E, he says.
Even so, he stresses that optimal levels of a particular vitamin or nutrient may mean different things to different people - varying with age, gender or physical condition.
There is even a difference in the optimal range for vitamin A among pregnant women, because of potential birth defect risks to the growing fetus.
As a rule, Keith says people should strive to derive as much of their daily nutrient intake as possible from food rather than from supplements.
Does this mean foregoing vitamin and mineral supplements entirely?
Not necessarily, he said.
He cites folic acid as a good example. Keith and other nutritionists now consider folic acid an important nutrient among women who are likely to become pregnant.
Supplementation can provide a valuable safeguard in cases where these women are deriving insufficient amounts of this nutrient from the diet.
Other examples are iron and calcium, which women also occasionally have difficulty deriving from diet alone.
Yet another example is vitamin D - generally not a problem in the sunny South, where people can acquire their daily allowance merely by exposing themselves to sunlight 10 or 15 minutes each day.
However, it's a big concern for people who live at latitudes where sunlight is at a premium or for people confined indoors.
The important thing to remember, Keith says, is to put diet first.
People look to diets as their principal nutritional source rather than depending solely on supplements to supply these needs.
There is no harm in using a multivitamin and mineral supplement, providing it is consumed at levels of between 50 and 100 percent of the recommended dietary allowances for all the nutrients listed and so long as it is viewed strictly as providing an extra level of protection along with a healthy diet.
Likewise, he says these supplements should be viewed merely as providing a minimal safeguard - not as some “fantastic way to cure cancer, arthritis or some other condition.”