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Skip the vitamins, focus on nutrient-dense foods

This is the time of year when we are overwhelmed with a wonderful variety of fresh produce.

It is easy to fulfill the recommendation of 2½ cups daily of any combination of fruits and vegetables. Just with the corn, peaches, tomatoes and string beans off the vine, I am way over the top.

Often, the people eating the most healthful diets are the ones supplementing their intake with random vitamins and minerals just on the“off chance” they might need them. It just doesn’t make sense to me that one would spend money on a pill that is combination of chemicals that are expensive and unproven.

For years, researchers have said that Americans have the most expensive urine in the world. Instead of focusing on eating nutrient-dense foods, people have been willing to pay big dollars to swallow more than a handful of pills on the chance they will make them healthier. As more and more studies are revealing, this can actually be harmful to our health.

The National Center for Health Statistics found that 53 percent of American adults took vitamin and mineral supplements worth an estimated $28 billion. The bottom line is we are wasting money on multivitamins and supplements that have no proven benefit and may actually do harm. Save your money and your health.

But there can be reason to supplement in some cases. For example, at some latitudes, people can be deficient in vitamin D. Vegetarians can be deficient in vitamin B12, folate, iron and omega fats. Recently, the low levels of these nutrients in vegetarian men revealed increased incidence of depression. This needs further research.

That $28 billion is an average of $240 per year spent by 53 percent of the adult population on substances that may or may not work and may have unknown consequences. Supplements were never intended to be a food substitute and will never make up for all the nutrients and trace minerals of a varied diet. Extra supplements of particular levels can also negatively affect the balance of other nutrients in the body (micro-nutrients as well as the better-known ones).

The Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed 27 studies involving more than 450,000 participants. The conclusion was that there is no consistent evidence that supplements positively affected healthy individuals. Studies found no physical improvement in cognitive function or verbal memory with or without vitamin supplements. Vitamin supplements, particularly antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, provided no clear benefit in preventing serious heart problems. In fact, vitamin A, beta carotene and vitamin E supplements actually increased the risk of premature death as well as increased incidence of specific diseases (particularly cancers).

There is one specific exception. Women of childbearing age are encouraged to take a folic acid supplement to prevent birth defects.

Nature provides a variety of foods. Basic food has three main benefits that supplements cannot address. For starters, food provides greater nutrition because the foods are complex and provide a variety of micro-nutrients. The more basic the food, the less chemical additives are present. An orange provides vitamin C, beta carotene, fiber, calcium, potassium and trace minerals, each with specific jobs to do in the body. The vitamin C tablet contains only chemically created vitamin C.

Basic food provides essential fiber. Fiber protects against various cancers, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. It also provides a variety of other protective substances, including phytochemicals, antioxidants and electrolytes. The human body is a complex combination of systems that function well if treated well.

Wendy Rice is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at wendy.rice@colostate.edu or 382-6461.

Wendy Rice