Saturday, September 02, 2006

Vitamin Supplements – Are they Beneficial or Just Hype?

Vitamin supplements have been increasing in popularity and availability over the past 30 years. In North America it has become a multi – billion dollar industry. Vitamin supplements have been hailed as powerful antioxidants that fight against a wide variety of health conditions such as cancer and heart disease. They are also credited with causing reverse affects in the aging process, and enhancing athletic ability.

The question is, however, do these claims have substance – or is it a product of the giant corporate machine that preys on society’s fears, fuelled by the media. The media has a tendency to sensationalize certain ideas and findings, often misrepresenting them. This is one process by which consumer trends are created or molded.

If this is the case, the following question may be raised. Which food trends are inspired by factual information that is truly beneficial to health? In other words do certain products really deliver on promises made by industry or the media? If not, then who is to blame?

The media may be partly to blame for playing up on certain fears, facts or ideas. At the same time the corporations could be partly responsible as well. Where the real problem lies is in miscommunication. These problems would be solved if a reliable and effective stream of communication existed between the scientific community, the government, the media and the corporate world.

This is the objective these organizations should be striving for. Until such a system is put into place there will be no accurate way of telling whether the consumer can count on every benefit promised.

Now let’s get back to vitamin supplements. In order to find the facts we must go right to the source. In other words we have to look at results from scientific studies. A recent study, that included tens of thousands of subjects, showed that vitamin E and beta carotene supplementation did not lower the risk of heart disease or death from heart disease. Foods, however, that contain antioxidants are still recommended. (1)

Over the last twenty years there have been many similar studies with varying results. In fact they have been largely contradicting. And so to this day the subject remains controversial. If you look at the facts as a whole, you will find that vitamin supplements show no clear benefits in healthy people with well balanced diets.

On the other hand, in cases of malnutrition or other forms of vitamin deficiencies, vitamin supplementation subscribed by physicians has been proven to be beneficial and essential. Countless studies have proven that vitamins and nutrients from real food sources are much more effective.

In fact several key studies were done to determine why certain areas around the world had low incidents of heart disease and cancer. Evidence suggested that these low rates were attributed to diet. And in all these studies vitamin supplementation was virtually nonexistent. These areas of study have included the Mediterranean region, Japan, France, the Arctic, Africa and South America. It was found that these cultures contained diets with foods rich in natural antioxidants.

Some of these foods include fresh and cooked vegetables, wild greens, fruits, wine and variety of nuts. Compared to the American diet these diets contained higher contents of unrefined carbohydrates and/or higher fish contents and much lower quantities of red meat, hydrogenated fat and dairy products.

One reason why vitamin supplements have become so popular in North America is the type of lifestyle we lead. As a result of our busy, fast – paced way of life we find less and less time to prepare proper well balanced meals. Most of us, therefore, are not getting enough essential vitamins and nutrients from our diet. We are eating too much of the wrong foods and often feel tired and burned out.

Instead of improving our eating habits, we get sold on the pitch that we need vitamin supplements to increase strength and vitality. If we had well balanced diets in the first place, we wouldn’t have to throw away large sums of money on supplements, the vast majority of which are completely ineffective.

The wiser thing to do is try to incorporate some of these diet patterns that have been proven beneficial to health in the regions mentioned earlier. First of all we must increase fish intake and decrease consumption of red meat. Increase intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole unrefined carbohydrates and decrease amount of simple carbohydrates like sugar and products with white flour, saturated and hydrogenated fats – made from animal sources, margarines, creamy dressings and dips, and gravies. In other words, decrease the amount of processed food.

Furthermore, when combining a well balanced diet with regular exercise participation, the health benefits become tenfold. You will become more relaxed and able to sleep better. Your energy threshold will be increased, enabling you to perform at a higher level while feeling less tired. You will lose weight, your health and appearance will improve, and you’ll feel better about yourself.

References:

1 http://www.clevelandclinic.org, “Fighting heart disease: Should you be “pro” or “anti” antioxidants”, retrieved 29 Oct. 2004 from http://www.clevelandclinic.org/heartcenter/
pub/guide/disease/cad/vitamin_e.htm

By John Tiniakos

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