Every morning my son and I make our way downstairs in the darkness of pre-dawn, where he proceeds to ask for three things: a “nana”, milk, and his vitamins. And cartoons.
The banana, milk, and cartoons are probably among the normal things toddlers ask for, but should he really even know what vitamins are at the ripe old age of 22 months, let alone be asking for them?
While I do my best to feed my son a nutritious diet, in good old-fashioned toddlerhood pickiness, it usually doesn’t turn out as well as I’d planned. He’s allergic to dairy and soy, doesn’t tolerate wheat well, and is currently anti-vegetable unless it comes in puff, chip, or stick form. That leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to nutrition, hence the vitamins. (He gets DHA and multivitamin.)
My husband and I take vitamins too. My husband falls prey to the marketing hype of the individual mega-packets of horse pills made for manly men, whereas I opt for the whole-food vitamin side of the marketing spectrum. (Though let’s be honest, I barely remember to take them.) We take vitamins, like most people, to be healthy and make up for any pitfalls in our not-always-so-healthy diet.
But are we really making ourselves healthier? Do vitamins work? Is my son benefiting from his beloved supplements? Is is true that vitamins just make for “expensive pee”, as we used to say in my dietetic internship?
Apparently. Research shows that vitamins have little to do with decreasing the risk of heart disease and cancer, the two biggest leading causes of death in America. Despite this conclusion from a review of 26 studies, there still remains ambiguity in the arena of vitamin supplementation. Even after this research endeavor, a recommendation for vitamins is neither discouraged nor supported.
“At this point in time the science is not sufficient for us to estimate how much benefit or harm there is from taking vitamin or multivitamin supplements to prevent cancer or heart disease,” Dr. Michael LeFevre, co-vice chair of the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, told the NY Daily News.
While no all-encompassing recommendation came out of this research, several specific conclusions on certain vitamins were reached. Vitamin E was found to have no benefit in reducing heart disease or cancer, folic acid supplementation is beneficial for pregnant women, and beta-carotene can actually increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. Other studies have showed positive results when it comes to supplementing specific vitamins and minerals as opposed to a generic multivitamin. For instance, men who took calcium supplements had a lower risk of death than those with a lower calcium intake.
So while Americans spend billions of dollars on supplements every year, we may not being doing anything for our long-term risk of disease. But I find the headlines misleading. They imply vitamin and mineral supplementation is worthless, but these findings can only be applied to heart disease and cancer. What about improved immunity, better bone health, improved brain function, or decreased joint pain? What about those with a vitamin D deficiency or mineral imbalance? I think this still leaves a huge window open for the possibility of vitamins to play a beneficial role in health. Of course getting nutrients from food is the prime option, but that’s not always possible. (Read: my toddler that only eats things that crunch or squeeze out of a pouch.)
In light of the inconclusive evidence of vitamins, it does sway me to ensure my son, husband, and I are taking vitamins that are high quality and seem necessary for our individual situations. I’d have a hard time feeling good about not giving my son a DHA supplement when I know his current fat intake is almost non-existent, although he has been known to eat coconut oil straight out of the jar in the past. I would feel negligent not considering a vitamin D supplement for myself when prior blood work has shown my levels run borderline low. So while these bottled pills may not make up for an inadequate diet and they may not prevent heart disease and cancer down the road, I think there’s still room for vitamins in our medicine cabinet.