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So, Which Vitamins SHOULD You Be Taking?

Photo credit: Bradley Stemke on Flickr.

Last week, The Guardian published an expose on the ineffectiveness of multi-vitamins. It seems that the vitamin industry is fuelled in part by a long history of inflating the results of their usage, and that taking too many vitamins can actually be quite harmful.

In October 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: a 1994 National Cancer Institute study on 29,000 men revealed that those taking supplements were more likely to die from heart disease and lung cancer than those who didn’t take them. Another study from the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center in Seattle replicated those results two years later, claiming that the men who took the supplements were dying at higher rates than those who did not.

So, what could this mean? First, it means that vitamins are still healthy — if you’re getting them from food. There’s nothing wrong with cooking with super foods like blueberries, spinach, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and other whole fruits and vegetables. Go ahead, blend up that green juice. But don’t expect to get the same nutritional value from a pill.

Second, it means that vitamins cannot substitute for a healthy diet and an active lifestyle. There is no magic pill to keep you cancer free, and if there were, it would be subject to a federal approval process — vitamins and herbal supplements and the majority of over-the-counter weight loss “solutions” aren’t. What this article (and others like it) doesn’t mention is that correlation is not causation: if these individuals were taking the pills and using it as an excuse to eat junk food and never exercise, their risk of heart disease and cancer would have increased no matter what. A series of antioxidants can’t thwart the ravages of bad habit.

What vitamins are supplements should you take, if any? Keep in mind that women’s nutritional needs are different from men’s, and that there are too few women in clinical trials, generally. Here’s what you might consider taking, instead of a multivitamin.

  • Calcium¬†helps prevent bone loss and can help you maintain bone mass as you age.
  • Omega fatty acids, such as those found in salmon, olive oil, and flaxseed, can protect against heart disease.
  • Iron is especially important to women in their reproductive window, while they are still menstruating. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, especially during menstruation. Eating spinach, lentils, and red meat can help.
  • Vitamin B12 plays an important role in metabolizing food into energy, but most people don’t get enough of it. If your energy is low and you don’t know why, B12 might be a good idea for you.