The promise behind multivitamins is perfectly logical. Sure, take a pill to ensure that you get what you need to live and function well. That way, you presumably don't have to worry that you didn't choke down your organic kale on any given day. Too bad the promise is empty. Multivitamins in supplement form, taken as a way to fulfill pre-determined nutritional requirements, don't work. Not a lick.
The Research Proves It
Fortman and his colleagues reviewed three trials of multivitamins and 24 trials of single or paired vitamins involving 400,000 participants. There was no clear evidence that the pills reduced all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.
Likewise, Lamas and his associates assessed the effects of a 28-component multivitamin in 1708 men and women who had previously experienced myocardial infarction. After 4.6 years, they didn't see any difference in mortality rates.
Grodstein and his co-workers didn't have any better luck. They wanted to see if a multivitamin helped prevent cognitive decline in 5,947 men over the age of 65. After 12 years of poring over the records of the placebo group and the multivitamin group, they determined the answer was no.
Society, apparently, has turned a deaf ear to all this evidence, probably thinking that all it would take to cure that deaf ear is a multivitamin with a little extra magnesium, because sales of these pills continues to increase. Granted, there's plenty of research that clearly points to the efficacy of certain individual vitamins or minerals in having a specific health or performance-enhancing effect, but the research regarding multivitamin or multivitamin/mineral formulations is unequivocal: They aren't worth it.
Why Multivitamins Don't Work
1. The one-size-fits-all philosophy.
It's largely agreed that there are 24 vitamins and minerals essential to human life. Various organizations have come up with an alphabet soup of acronyms (RDA, DRI, etc.) that tell us just how much of these nutrients we all need to function and live. The trouble is, they're all based on a bell curve and while they may hold true for a 150-pound municipal worker named Phil who lives in Akron, Ohio, they might not hold true for sweaty athletes, bigger (or smaller) people, or you.
2. Downright nasty manufacturing processes.
Most vitamin C and most B vitamins, for example, are made in China, the vitamin C from mixing sulfuric acid with high-fructose corn syrup and the B vitamins from coal tar derivatives. Sure, there are "natural" ways to manufacture vitamins, but chances are if you're taking a multi, you're ingesting some stuff that's a little ugly.
While there's no proof, yet, that these Frankenstein vitamins are less effective or not chemically equivalent to the natural stuff presumably manufactured by filtering organic mangos through the gossamer panties of angels, it just doesn't smell right, literally or figuratively.
3. So many possible interactions.
Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble and as such are best taken with food. Iron shouldn't be ingested with coffee or tea because tannins interfere with absorption. Likewise, iron interferes with the absorption of zinc and copper. Vitamins E and A can counteract K.
And then there's the problem of phytates, which are compounds found in whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. They're problematical in that they interfere with the absorption of trace minerals. In regions of the world where phytate consumption is high but consumption of meat and seafood is low, you see epidemic mineral deficiencies that manifest themselves as developmental delays, mental deficiencies, dwarfism, and hypogonadism.
What that means is that if you're one of the millions who takes your multi with their phytate-laden morning oatmeal, you're pooping out some exceptionally high-quality fertilizer every day. It also means that taking a pill to handle most of your nutritional needs is pure folly since there are just too many possible interactions and pitfalls.
4. Cherry picking and not seeing the big picture.
Science has established that there are pretty much 24 essential vitamins and minerals and it's easy to see how some simplistic, two-dimensional thinking would lead to the assumption that you just have to isolate these substances, stick them all in pills, and feed them to the world.
However, we've seen that it usually doesn't work. People don't get healthy or stay healthy from ingesting multis. Maybe, just maybe, these nutrients aren't supposed to be isolated and taken by themselves. Maybe they need to be taken in whole food form to be truly effective. Maybe the nutrient needs to work in conjunction with some (or maybe even all) of the micronutrients and phytochemicals intrinsic to the whole food source for it to work.
Where Should I Get My Vitamins and Minerals From?
Eating some isolated multivitamins in pill form might not do much to ensure health, but getting those same vitamins in the form of a blueberry, a banana, or a kumquat might go a long way in feeding your body what it needs.
As evidence, 500 researchers from more than 300 institutions in 50 countries compared notes from over 100,000 data sources and wrote something called the Global Burden of Disease Study. The purpose was to determine what specifically was causing the most deaths on the planet and the authors of the study came to a jaw-dropping conclusion.
They reported that the biggest killer of humans was diet, which is/was responsible for killing almost 5 million people a year, but that's not the jaw-dropping part. The jaw-dropping part was this: The specific aspect of diet that was killing people was fruit, or rather, lack of it. If Americans, for example, ate just one more serving of fruit a day, it would presumably save 30,000 lives every year.
And no, the scientists didn't recommend government-issue multivitamins as an alternative. They recommended natural, colorful, flesh, juicy, off-the-vine or even in a can, fruit. So sure, it's a given that fruits are nutritional powerhouses, but perhaps surprisingly, when it comes to nutrient density, fruits get their nutritional butts kicked by vegetables.
The 17 Most Nutritious Fruits and Veggies
Scientists come out with classifications about the nutritional value of foods all the time, but the current darling is the PFV, or Powerhouse Fruit and Vegetable scale. Like most such scales, its purpose was to determine which foods provide the most nutrients.
Little-known watercress, the stuff that pasty, foppish Englishmen put on their finger sandwiches, gets top billing as the most nutrient dense food. Equally surprising is that of the 41 foods on the list, only seven of them are fruits, with all seven of those fruits ranking on the bottom half of the list. The top nutrient dogs are all vegetables. Here are the top 17:
- Chinese Cabbage
- Beet Greens
- Leaf Lettuce (not iceberg)
- Romaine Lettuce
- Collard Green
- Turnip Green
- Mustard Green
- Dandelion Green
- Red Pepper
If you're the average Dorito-munching American, you probably couldn't identify any of those vegetables with the possible exception of spinach, romaine lettuce, and red peppers. As this list is, it ignores a lot of nutrients that are pretty damn important to human health, like vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E, and K. Neither does it consider the role of the myriad phytochemicals that play perhaps as great a role in human nutrition as the more commonly known nutrients.
You see where this is going, right? Eating right is hugely difficult and while it would be nice to take a pill or capsule that would address all our nutritional and health concerns, it isn't currently possible. What we need is a general prescription for health, one that combines eating nutrient-dense foods, taking specific vitamins or compounds with known, proven health benefits, and even using an over-the-counter drug.
A Prescription for Health
Ditch the multivitamins. Here are 19 things that actually work.
- Practice Fruit and Vegetable Promiscuity. Throw fistfuls of raisins or frozen berries into your oatmeal or cereal. Keep apples, bananas, and bags of prunes around for snacks. Keep spinach leaves on hand and toss them into the pan before you scramble your eggs. Chop and dice any vegetable you can find into bite-size pieces, drizzle them with olive oil, cover them with foil, and either throw them on the grill at high heat or in the oven at 425 degrees for a half hour. The key is variety and volume. Buy vegetables and fruits you never heard of before. Make it a rule to introduce one new vegetable or fruit every week.
- Eat Sauerkraut. Fermented foods deserve their own classification. Consider that there's an argument to be made that a good part of the way you think, feel, or function is based on your gut, or more accurately, the bacteria inhabiting your gut. As such, we need to help both populate the gut with bacteria while also doing something to feed those same bacteria. Enter sauerkraut, which is made by allowing a mixture of shredded cabbage and salt to ferment for several weeks. Adding just a little bit to your diet every day might help nearly every aspect of your health from digestive health to heart health to skin health. Just make sure you don't cook it, though, because that kills the bacteria and zaps all the magic out of the food.
- Take Certain Chelated Minerals. If you're an athlete, you sweat and thus you're likely deficient in zinc, which, along with selenium, maintains high testosterone levels and the immune system. If you're a plain old human, you're also likely deficient in magnesium, and magnesium alone is responsible for over 300 biochemical reactions in the human body, ranging from muscle and nerve function to protein synthesis. Likewise, certain minerals like chromium and vanadium help regular blood sugar levels and insulin, the importance of which would take another 10,000 words to explain. Suffice it to say that these particular minerals are often in short supply and athletes would do well to take them, preferably in chelated form, as found in Elitepro™ Minerals.
- Use Vitamin D3. If you're able to spend between 15 and 30 minutes in the sun, pretty much naked, every day, without getting skin cancer or looking like an old catcher's mitt, skip the vitamin D3 supplements. Otherwise, take 1,000 to 2,000 IU every day to enjoy increased cognition and better immune health and bone health while reducing the risks of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Take Coenzyme Q10. CoQ10 is what's known as a pseudovitamin in that it's essential for life, but it's not essential to life that you supplement with it. Nevertheless, consider taking 90 to 200 mg. a day, with food, to feed the cellular engines known as mitochondria, which, according to some scientists, are the organelles that truly determine our long-term health. It may also reduce plaque in the arteries.
- Take Resveratrol. This compound can protect us from insulin resistance and heart disease, along with working as a potent estrogen antagaonist and aromatase inhibitor. More info here.
- Use Cyandin 3-Glucoside. This substance regulates the chemical master switch called AMPK (adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase). This master switch plays a huge role in determining not only how fat you are, but how long you live. In a nutshell, it controls carbs to build muscle, if you lift weights. Since you really can't get enough of it from food alone (at least for dramatic physique improvement), supplement with Indigo-3G®.
- Ingest Omega-3 Fatty Acids. We live in an omega-6 world and it's killing us. Nature intended for us to have a two-to-one or three-to-one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our body, but because of our fast-food, snack-food, meal-in-a-box way of life, this ratio is now more like 20 to 1 in favor of the omega-6s. Inflammation is thus running rampant through our bodies and the best way to stop it is to cut down on the omega-6's and to start swallowing those beautiful amber fish oil gelcaps. Take up to 12,000 milligrams of a combined DHA/EPA formulation, like Flameout®, once per day.
- Pop CLA. Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is a fatty acid found in high quantities in grass-fed beef. Since most of us don't get much grass-fed beef, we're likely deficient in this important fatty acid. Numerous studies have shown it be a potent cancer fighter, as well as playing a role in normalizing blood pressure, fighting cardiovascular disease in general, and helping with osteoporosis, inflammation, and even body composition. Take about 1,000 mg. a day of the two combined isomers.
- Eat Liver. Organ meats are the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. Learn to eat them.
- Sprinkle Herbs and Spices Over Food. They don't get much nutritional attention, but herbs and spices are nearly as nutrient-dense as organ meats. Stock your pantry with a variety of them and use them on anything in any amount your palate will tolerate.
- Rely on Curcumin. Curcumin is one of those supplements that sometimes seems too good to be true because the stuff does everything. It helps enhance cardiovascular health, reduces body fat, relieves pain, kills multiple types of cancer cells, and reduces estrogen levels, among other things. Take about 1,000 mg. a day for general health, more, as needed, to alleviate pain. Make sure you use a formula like Biotest Curcumin that's employing additional food technology to make it more absorbable.
- Try PQQ. Pyrroloquinolone quinone, or PQQ, isn't currently viewed as a vitamin, even though it might be essential to life. The compound is exciting because it's one of the few things that's been shown, at least in one study, to cause cellular mitochondria to proliferate, and that function may well be the definitive key to health and longevity. Given the uncertainty behind this substance, add it to your optional but not essential list of supplements. Take 30 mg. a day.
- Use Superfood. This product is the thinking man's alternative to multivitamins. It consists solely of 18 nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables that have been dessicated, pulverized, and stored in a pouch. As such, Superfood contains all the nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals intrinsic to the fruits and vegetables it's made from. Take two scoops a day.
- Take a Chance With Saw Palmetto. The research behind saw palmetto as a prostate savior isn't conclusive. We're not sure that it relieves symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia or that it lowers levels of prostate specific antigen. However, we're fairly certain that it does lower levels of DHT while increasing levels of testosterone. The latter achievements, and the possibility that it does help with the former, convince us that it merits inclusion in your health prescription. Make sure you buy a product that was manufactured using the supercritical C02 method. Take between 160 and 320 mg. a day.
- Consider Iodine. People who live by the ocean usually aren't deficient in iodine because they presumably get plenty of seafood. Not so for landlubbers in Kansas. Years ago, practically everybody who lived far away from the ocean was deficient in iodine, so the Morton Salt Company started putting iodine in their salt. Iodine deficiency became a thing of the past. However, with more people using exotic sea salts (which often lack sufficient iodine), not eating salt at all because of some doctor's recommendation, or subsisting solely on restaurant food (most of which don't use iodized versions), iodine deficiencies are back. That's too bad, because iodine is crucial to human health. If you have dry skin or have trouble staying lean, you might be deficient. The same might be true if you have mysterious fatigue or suffer from unexplained autoimmune diseases or depression. It also plays a pivotal role in heart disease and various types of cancer. The RDA is a mere 150 mcg. a day, but take up to 6 to 12 milligrams a day if you suspect a deficiency.
- Drink Green Tea. Green tea may be the one drink that lives up to a lot of its hype. It allegedly protects almost every organ system in the body, along with burning decent amounts of fat. One cup contains about 50 mg. of the active ingredient (epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG), but you need from 400 to 500 mg. a day to experience any appreciable fat-burning effects. Note: Superfood, recommended above, also contains EGCG.
- Use Low-Dose Aspirin. It's one of the oldest drugs around and if it were introduced today, the FDA would probably never approve it because it causes gastrointestinal bleeding in certain people. However, it's a true miracle drug. It keeps platelets from getting sticky, it curbs inflammation, and it seems to prevent prostate and colon cancers. It also serves a mild respiratory uncoupler, which prevents excess free radical leakage. One single 80-mg. tablet a day is all you need.
- Add in Some Vitamin K2. This vitamin is found in many of the green, leafy vegetables at the top of the PFV scale, as well as cheeses and the fat of grass-finished animals, so if you eat plenty of that stuff, you probably won't have to worry about getting enough. However, if you're loath to eat your greens and can't cut the expense of grass-finished meat, get yourself some Vitamin K2. It protects against heart disease and tells the body to put the calcium you ingest into your bones rather than your arteries. Around 1,000 mcg. a day should do the trick.
Related: The Eat As Much As You Want Diet
Related: The Simple Diet for Athletes