In 1857, a wagon with very colorful signage painted on the sides pulled into town. A finely dressed gentleman proceeded to draw crowds with the announcement of a miracle tonic. “This new formula will cure anything.” Today, we find this same salesman on our TV or in computer ads selling expensive vitamin packs with claims to deliver energy boosts and metabolism jump-starts. The idea of mega dosing vitamins and minerals with many times more than what we would normally get in food is without scientific justification and could be harmful.
Cancer researchers recently completed a 10-year study of more than 77,000 men aged 50-76. Two vitamins, B6 and B12 allegedly increase energy and reduce cancer risk. They found that men who took more than 20 mg of B6 or 55 micrograms of B12 were three times more likely to develop lung cancer than those who didn’t take the supplement. These doses are well beyond the recommended daily amounts of the two vitamins, 1.3-1.7 mg for B6 and 2.4 micrograms for B12. Another recent study found that those with the lowest or the highest blood levels of magnesium were 30% more likely to develop dementia compared to those with mid-range levels. The findings support getting nutrients from a balanced diet rather than from supplements. A good source of magnesium is whole grains.
Researchers have been studying potential links between supplements and disease for decades. If supplements are doing any good, we should see evidence of this in long-term studies. However, with a few exceptions research has found the opposite. A review of 27 studies of vitamins involving over 400,000 people was recently published in the Annuls of Internal Medicine. The researchers concluded that people who took vitamins did not live longer or have fewer cases of heart disease or cancer than people who did not take them.
By contrast, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) clearly states “Don’t use supplements to protect against cancer.” There is strong evidence that high-dose supplements of some nutrients can create imbalances that might increase the risk of some cancers. Our best strategy to avoid cancer is to consume a plant based diet defined as “two-thirds or more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, and one-third or less of animal protein.”
A study published in the British Medical Journal found that for adults over age 50, eating an apple a day could reduce incidence of heart attack and stroke by 8,500 deaths/year in the UK. This study shows that small dietary changes can significantly reduce risk of chronic disease. A study from Tufts University reported that eating a tomato-rich diet over a period of 11 years reduced heart attack risk by 26%. These studies do not imply that we should stop taking medications. And further, a once-a-day multivitamin is different than mega-dosing.
Nature neatly packages nutrients in foods in the exact amounts needed by the body. Consuming a variety of food provides nutrient balance that supports body systems that promote health. By getting nutrients from food we miss the potential harm of mega dosing and potential imbalances.
Today’s recipe comes from my wife’s grandmother. This easy to make hearty vegetable soup is a good example of a balanced meal that delivers a wide range of vitamins and minerals in the amounts our bodies need. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is more about common sense practices than costly gimmicks. To improve longevity and reduce risk of chronic disease, I’m placing my bets on daily activity and eating good food.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.