There are enough myths around vitamins to make an ancient Greek blush, and
it's easy to see why.
We all know that vitamins and minerals are essential to good health -- it
says so right there on the cereal box. And we live in the more-is-better era of
Hummers, Big Gulps, and McMansions. Which raises the obvious question: if
taking 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of, say, vitamin C is
good enough to keep us going through the day, then why shouldn't taking 1,000%
be enough to melt our fat, cure our blues, and let us leap tall buildings in a
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Meanwhile, the $19 billion-a-year dietary supplement industry continually
reminds us that we can get our vitamins from a pill. Which invites yet another
question: Why should we bother choking down bushels of brussels sprouts when we
could get the same effect by sprinkling supplement shavings over our Boston
If life were only that easy. The broad consensus from nutrition experts --
or at least the ones who aren't buying Hummers with the proceeds from
supplement sales -- is that while vitamins are indeed essential, big doses are
usually pointless and can even be harmful. And no pill is likely to ever
adequately substitute for a healthy diet.
Why They Matter
Vitamins and minerals are substances your body needs for normal growth and
functioning. Some facilitate crucial chemical reactions, while others act as
building blocks for the body.
Nutritionists call vitamins and minerals "micronutrients" to
distinguish them from the macronutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, and
fats that make up the bulk of our food. While micronutrients are vital for the
proper processing of macronutrients, they're needed in smaller quantities.
Think of it this way: If macronutrients are the gas in your engine, then
micronutrients are like the motor oil, coolant, and battery fluid.
Micronutrient deficiency can lead to acute diseases with exotic names like
scurvy, pellagra, and beriberi. Deficiency diseases were common in the U.S.
until the 1940s, when the FDA-mandated fortification of common foods like bread
and milk. These diseases are still common in many poorer countries.
Maintaining a Healthy Diet
It's easy to get enough micronutrients from your food if you maintain a
healthy diet, Audrey Cross, PhD, associate clinical professor of nutrition at
Columbia's School of Public Health, tells WebMD. But most people fail that
test; they'll eat two or three servings of fruits and veggies per day rather
than the recommended five. That's why Cross (and many other nutritionists)
suggest a multivitamin as a sort of nutritional safety net for many of their
But it's just a safety net. So-called "whole foods" like veggies and
whole grains contain fiber and a host of other important nutrients that can't
be adequately delivered through pills. In fact, scientists are still finding
new "trace elements" in whole foods that may someday be labeled
essential to health -- but aren't found in any pill.