Health has long been a human obsession especially because meeting our complex nutritional needs is as difficult as balancing a house of cards. But all that changed dramatically in 1968. Of course, I’m referring to the year that Miles Laboratory introduced the Flinstones chewable vitamins—the fruity candy-flavored ‘nutrients’ disguised as characters from the long-running cartoon that kids (and quite a few adults) love to eat. But do vitamins really offer us any advantages over food?
Human bodies are peculiar, modern foods even more so. And while some food provides fecund resources of nutrients, others are not only void of any real health benefits, but they can also deplete our bodies of other essential nutrients, making the pursuit of optimum nutrition a bit like a dog caught up in a tail chase.
There’s no question that humans need micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, trace minerals and antioxidants). And like the rest of life on earth, most of that comes from the foods we eat—or at least, it used to. But over-farmed mono-cropped soil that once was a rich resource of micronutrients now produces the synthetic processed foods loaded with trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors that makes up a majority of the Western diet, and has led to a prolonged degradation of nutrients in the human body.
So, we supplement: Calcium for older women, vitamin A for eyesight, vitamin D in colder climates, vitamin C when we’re sick and so on. We know that even the synthetic Flintstone-esque vitamins offer us some benefits, be they only on par with the processed foods depleting us of the same nutrients (one can live a good 50 or 60 years on luck and Doritos). The short answer is that yes, vitamins do have benefits. But the situation is a bit more complicated. Recent studies link daily vitamins to some potentially serious health issues even despite other studies that find people who take vitamin supplements are actually healthier than those who do not. (Whether or not that’s simply a state of mind doesn’t seem to matter; the placebo effect is significant.)
At certain times in our lives supplementation may be more necessary than others—it doesn’t mean that we’re eating poorly, either. We could be pregnant or recovering from an injury, for example. But there’s no question that food has changed, and our bodies, too, are constantly transforming. And while there are plenty of reasons to want to bite the head off of Fred Flintstone, a food-based vitamin is a better bet. Still, most doctors and scientists agree that nothing beats a diet full of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. And you’ll find those mostly in plant foods grown in the wild or organically on small-scale farms where crop rotation and soil care is of the utmost importance.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
Image: Lisa Brewster