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July 2001 Issue
Should You Take a Vitamin Pill?
by Michael Fick
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Should You Take a Vitamin Pill?

Most likely.

A better question is, "Which one?" ... which brand, which type, which special blend, at what cost, from what source?

Most likely, its right answer is, "the cheapest, basic 100% multivitamin, multimineral (MVMM) tablet you can find with a label you've heard of". Wal-Mart, Kmart, Walgreen, etc. are about as good as it gets.

Why? Because they're all basically alike.

As a first approximation, you can stop here. There's more, if you're interested. And you should be, as you will see below.

You probably need one if your diet is not perfect ... which it isn't, because no one knows what a perfect diet is. Besides, no rational person would eat one anyway because defining and achieving it would occupy half their waking hours. A MVMM is cheap, safe insurance against a shortage because it contains only the minimum Daily Values (DVs, also called USRDA) required to prevent deficiency diseases, not the maximum safe doses.

To pick an MVMM, ignore the label's color. Ignore its brand, its source, its claims, its hype, its ads. Its most important single factor, even to Bill Gates, is its price: over $15 a year is a waste of money. Its second most important factor (because it's hard to find one without it) is the USP on the label, which ensures its quality and bioavailability. Third, stick with the 100% levels, not the higher-potency versions; the latter are unnecessary, possibly harmful, and often falsely labeled anyway.

Let's pick ingredient nits. But let's not waste space on the ingredients not worth wasting space on because they're in all the MVMMs at a pretty standard, adequate, safe level.

Vitamin C: The DV is 60 mg, but we need another 200-500 to maintain optimal blood Vitamin C levels. If you want a little extra protection when fighting a cold, get it via a separate Vitamin C pill -- if the diarrhea risk is worth it to you.

Vitamin E: It keeps falling further from grace with each new study, but there's still hope for its long-term benefit and it's harmless, so the amount in an MVMM is safe insurance because we get so little of it in our food.

Vitamin K: If you don't eat plenty of leafy greens, even the 25 mcg in your MVMM may be less than optimal for bone strength. Men need 80 total, women 65.

The B Vitamins:
Thiamin (B-1), Riboflavin (B-2), Niacin, and B-6: The DV in most basic MVMMs is plenty, a little more is OK, but some MVMMs can reach harmful levels -- 500 mg for Niacin or 200 mg for B-6.
B-12: The DV is plenty normally, but people over 50 or on medicines that reduce stomach acid need at least 25 mcg daily from food or vitamin pills.

Calcium: Get much more than your MVMM provides. Read food labels and make sure you get 1000 mg total each day if 19-50 years old, 1,200 if 51-70, 1,500 if over 70.

Iron: To be on the safe side, keep it under 10 mg unless you're a growing child or can still bear one.

Magnesium: It's easy to need more than many MVMMs provide if you don't eat enough of two of nature's most nourishing foods ... beans and whole-grains. You may need at least 100 mg in your MVMM to help meet your daily minimum of 400 mg.

Phosphorus: The less, the better. We eat too much already, and over 100 mg in our MVMM is just too much.

Selenium: New research indicates we may need 200 mcg daily of a yeast-based selenium supplement, ten times what many MVMMs provide and much more than many diets provide. If your MVMM hasn't raised its selenium to something like 200 mcg, consider adding the rest with a yeast-based supplement tablet. Selenium can be toxic in doses as low as 1,000 mcg.

Chromium: We want the DV -- 120 mcg - in our MVMM, but more than 200 is unnecessary.

Zinc and copper: A balanced amount (15 mg zinc/2 mg copper) is about right. They work together.

Notice I didn't even mention Vitamin A, Vitamin D, biotin, pantothenic acid, iodide, manganese, molybdenum, chloride, boron, nickel, silicon, tin, vanadium, lutein, potassium for one or more of these reasons:

    a. We don't need any (e.g., vanadium).
    b. We get plenty even in pretty sorry diets (e.g., chloride).
    c. Every basic MVMM on the planet provides it (e.g., Vitamin A).
    d. The amount in a MVMM is insignificant. Get this one from real food (e.g., potassium).

All that bee fur, frog tooth extract, lizard gizzard, oat bran, and ghingphoo stuff in the designer MVMM is just that ... stuff ... and is in such small quantities that neither the bee, the frog, nor the lizard would benefit from it, let alone you or I.

This presumes, of course, that you already eat a proper, varied diet of plentiful vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fluids, and unsaturated fats, plus some dairy products and 60-70 grams of protein from some source, and that you eat very little saturated fat and refined foods such as enriched breads and pastas and junk food.

Only if you're on one of these bizarre, unhealthy, specialized, misguided diets such as a grapefruit diet, a high-fat or high-protein diet, or other diets limiting anything but saturated fat, or if you have specific medical problems requiring specific diets, should you need anything much different from your MVMM tablet or pay more than $15 a year for it.

Forget the "natural" stuff, the organic stuff, the chelated stuff, and the designer stuff tailored for left-handed, silver-haired, adolescent, postmenopausal tennis players. Even if you studied your individual diet, medical needs, and habits; identified the nutritional gaps in your diet; and found a specific MVMM that fit your profile, it would probably be cheaper to buy a basic $15-a-year MVMM and add a few other individual supplements as necessary. That's also more advisable, because, for example, our iron and calcium supplements should be taken with separate meals from each other because high dosages of calcium inhibit iron absorption.

Now, I could have spent days researching this in many books and all over the Internet, and have done so in years past on this very topic, but I don't mind admitting most of this information came from one authoritative source: the Food Nazi (so called by the fat purveyors whose toes he unashamedly steps on to protect us from them). Dr. Michael Jacobson's Nutrition Action Health Newsletter, from his Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), researches food products and tells it like it is just as Consumers' Union does with consumer goods.

Yes, he's quite intolerant of unhealthy foods, just as Consumer Reports is with imperfect goods. But that's fine, because there is such a huge variety of healthy foods available there's no reason to eat any of the unhealthy ones ... often.

If you're interested in the CSPI newsletter, you can contact them at www.cspinet.org. Prime proof of CSPI's threat to unhealthy food purveyors is the fact that often you will reach a very professionally written -- but very unfounded, unscientific, and biased -- spoof and denigration of CSPINET called CSPINOT when you click on the link above. You may have to use a search engine to reach the real cspinet, as the ripoff is very successful at intercepting cspinet's queries. That, to me, is solid evidence of the threat these fat-pushers perceive from cspinet.

If you need CSPI's help in picking a specific MVMM, they examined and rated the contents of more than a hundred of them in their April, 2000 issue of the Nutrition Action Newsletter. They may have back issues, but you should almost know enough by now to pick your own.

www.consumerlab.com recently analyzed 27 MVMMs and found nine with inaccurate ingredient labels or that failed to meet other standards. They do not list the brands that failed their tests, only the ones that passed, including the store brands from Costco, K-Mart, and Walgreen's and a couple of brands that sell under many labels. Other lab test results I've seen in the past also approved Wal-Mart's and many other common brands, concluding that the vast majority come from the same sources and are virtually alike. With those options available at about $15 per year, there's no reason to look further or pay more. The exceptions noted by Consumerlab were primarily concened with 50% high or low levels of Vit A and folic acid in some samples they do not name.



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