Ever since we were kids, we’ve been told that you need to take vitamin supplements to meet daily nutritional requirements (remember those chewy Flinstones gummies that were touted as being crucial for heart and eye health?). And as you get older, the list of vitamins that you “should” take just gets longer and longer. Fish oil to help lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease. Vitamin D to keep your bones strong. And multivamins for… well, everything.
But, as noted in this recent New York Times piece, while the health benefits of vitamins are unequivocal, there isn’t actually a whole lot of research to support the theory that you need to get from supplements, as opposed to food.
In the essay, health writer Liz Szabo notes that explains that while 68 percent of those age 65 and older take vitamins, and 29 percent of them take four or more supplements of any kind, there’s “no conclusive evidence that dietary supplements prevent chronic disease in the average American… And while a handful of vitamin and mineral studies have had positive results, those findings haven’t been strong enough to recommend supplements to the general American public.”
In fact, some studies have shown that not only does a high dosage of Vitamin E supplements not prevent heart disease, it can lead to a greater risk of cardiac failure. Similarly, calcium supplements, long believed to help promote strong bones, can increase the risk of kidney stones, according to some studies. In one more shocking, extensive study from the 1990s, beta carotene (which is found in carrots in small doses) can actually increase lung cancer rates when taken in the form of pills.
“Vitamins are not inert,” said Dr. Eric Klein, a prostate cancer expert at the Cleveland Clinic, said. “They are biologically active agents. We have to think of them in the same way as drugs. If you take too high a dose of them, they cause side effects.”
American food, in particular, tends to be so highly fortified that, according to Catherine Price, a journalist and author of Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, most people “are essentially eating a multivitamin” when they consume lunch or breakfast.
It’s worth mentioning as well that people who live in so-called “Blue Zones,” places where residents routinely live above the age of 90, don’t generally take any supplements at all. Instead, they get all of their vitamins from maintaining a Mediterranean diet that is low on dairy, sugar, and red meat, and concentrates on fish (which naturally contains plenty of Omega-3s), fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats such as olive oil. The Mediterranean diet has increased in popularity over the last few years, in part because it’s been proven to promote longevity, and in part because it allows—or even encourages—enjoying a daily glass of red wine.
Given the growing concern over America’s addiction to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, this information lends credence to the idea that you should get your nutritional value through a healthy, balanced diet.
You can also get lots of necessary vitamins by maintaining an active lifestyle. One recent study found that sunlight not only provides plenty of your daily requirement of vitamin D—which aids bone health and abates depression—but also helps you lose weight. And recent research has shown that walking for just 40 minutes several times per week reduces the risk of heart failure in post-menopausal women by a whopping 25 percent.
So, ditch the pills, eat a balanced diet, drink a glass of wine, get plenty of sleep, go outside, and enjoy yourself. Because, as professional ageless wonder Jane Fonda always says, nothing helps you stay young and healthy like maintaining a 20-year-old’s lust for life.
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