Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Information and Resources

Font Size

Vitamins: Separating Fact From Fiction

Experts cut through the hype about the health benefits of vitamin supplements.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 single bound?

Recommended Related to Drugs and Herbs

Pharmacists: They Do More Than Fill Prescriptions

A good day for registered pharmacist Michelle Kasperowitz, 37, is when she's peppered with questions. They can range from which blood pressure monitor to buy to whether a rash is poison ivy. And, because she works in a supermarket, she gets lots of food-related inquiries as well. "One man came up to me recently, waving a bag of broccoli," says Kasperowitz, who works at the ShopRite Pharmacy in Woodbridge, N.J. "He's on a blood thinner, and he wanted to know if he could eat it."    Kasperowitz's...

Read the Pharmacists: They Do More Than Fill Prescriptions article > >

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 cream pie?

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 patients.

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.

Hot Topics

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

Popular Slideshows & Tools on WebMD

feet
Solutions for 19 types.
row of colored highlighter pens
Tips for living better.
oatmeal and eggs
The best and worst for you.
neti pot
6 steps for nasal irrigation.
MS Overview
Recognizing symptoms.
stressed working woman
And how to fix them?
woman walking in fog
12 tips for managing your disease.
Healthy Snack
13 delicious options.
Woman running
10 ways to boost your metabolism.
lone star tick
How to identify that bite.
young woman in sun
What to watch for.
Colored x-ray of tooth decay
What are the top ones?

Women's Health Newsletter

Find out what women really need.