What's the Verdict? Are Vitamins Healthy or Harmful?

Is it true? Could taking a multivitamin really increase your risk of cancer and heart disease?

If you think you’re doing your body good by swallowing the latest and greatest multivitamin and supplements, you might want to think again.

Maybe it's because you're averse to vegetables or just want to ensure your optimal health that you pop a daily dose of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. And why wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?

Here's why: Lately, more and more research suggests that rather than safeguarding our health, vitamins may actually be harming it by putting us at greater risk for diseases like cancer and heart failure.

A recent NYT opinion piece by Paul A. Offit, M.D., chief of the infectious diseases division of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, argues that we should not, in fact, be taking our vitamins and cites research to back him up.

If you’re already healthy and your diet isn’t sorely lacking in vitamins or minerals, taking a daily multivitamin could very likely be giving your body mega doses of chemicals that it doesn’t need, argues Dr. Offit, which then throws off your system’s equilibrium. The result: a greater susceptibility to disease and premature aging, or so the theory goes.

In 1972, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to regulate megavitamins -- those containing more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowance -- the vitamin industry convinced a senator to introduce a bill preventing the regulation of these supplements. The senator’s bill passed and now the FDA has no say in whether mega-supplements are safe.

“The message is not that you should be dumping all of your supplements down the toilet,” says New York based nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D., author of Read It Before You Eat It. Though the article seems to suggest that all vitamins are bad for you, the real danger, explains Taub-Dix, is “the belief that if a little is good, a lot is better, and that’s a mistake.” If food is always your primary source of vitamins, you might not need a multivitamin except in some cases, she says.

Pregnant women may not feel well enough to eat; women with osteoporosis may not be drinking four glasses of milk a day; teenaged girls could be iron-deficient if they don’t eat a lot of meat and spinach, according to Taub-Dix. “It’s wonderful to think that we could all follow perfectly balanced diets, but we don’t always meet our needs. That’s why you need to know yourself to know if you need a multi,” she explains.

As long as you’re not getting more than your body needs, a multivitamin is not likely to harm you. That said, it should never be a substitute for a healthy diet. 

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