Principles of Plant-Based Nutrition – Principle #2

Supplements

This is the second of an eight-part series: Principles of Plant-Based Nutrition

Principle #2: Vitamins and Supplements are Not a Panacea for Good Health

In my last post, I talked about nutrition being a complex system of countless nutrients all working together to provide our bodies with everything they need for optimal health. Too often, however, people think that they can continue to consume the Standard American Diet (high in animal protein and fat, and low in dietary fiber) and somehow avoid all the SAD’s harmful consequences by downing a few handfuls of vitamins and supplements now and again. If you stop to think about it, this is really quite absurd.

This whole idea of supplements being a stand-in for proper nutrition started to unravel in the mid-1990s when the results of a major study of beta-carotene and lung cancer were released.1 2 Beta-carotene is a great antioxidant, and is found only in plants. Diets rich in beta-carotene were shown to reduce various diseases, so people started taking beta-carotene in pill form quite extensively. A study was organized to see if beta-carotene could help prevent lung cancer. The study was conducted in Finland and 29,000 smokers were given beta-carotene supplements and followed for eight years. To everyone’s surprise, they found a significant increase in lung cancer rates, not a decrease. They found that taking beta-carotene out of context does nothing whatsoever to prevent cancer. These findings basically burst the beta-carotene supplement bubble.

Another major report came out recently that covered a huge amount of literature over the past 15-20 years.3 4 The report said this: “The researchers could not determine the balance of benefits and harms of routine use of supplements of vitamin A, C, or E, or vitamins with folic acid [which is found in leafy vegetables] or antioxidant combination for the prevention of cancer or cardiovascular disease.” Their conclusion: The use of supplements is not the way to prevent disease.

A better approach to warding off disease and attaining long-term health is consuming a whole-food, plant-based diet, rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. This not only provides our bodies with optimal nutrition, it’s cheaper and definitely more delicious than eating handfuls of pills!

This is the second of an eight-part series: Principles of Plant-Based Nutrition

1 The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group. “The effect of vitamin E and beta carotene on the incidence of lung cancer and other cancers in male smokers.” New Engl. J. Med. 330 (1994): 1029–1035.
2 Omenn GS, Goodman GE, Thornquist MD, et al. “Effects of a combination of beta carotene and vitamin A on lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.” New Engl. J. Med. 334 (1996): 1150–1155.
3 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. “Routine vitamin supplementation to prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease: recommendations and rationale.” Ann. Internal Med. 139 (2003): 51–55.
4 Morris CD, and Carson S. “Routine vitamin supplementation to prevent cardiovascular disease: a summary of the evidence for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.” Ann. Internal Med. 139 (2003): 56–70.

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