The quick answer: As illustrated above, whole foods are the best source of vitamins.
The Age of Discovery
We can learn from our nation’s response to the discovery of vitamins back in the ‘20s and ‘30s. The discovery caused a public excitement for it seemed the scientists had their finger on the essence of life. The response went like this:
Step #1: Scientists discover vitamins.
Step #2: The media, always on the hunt for exciting news, inform the public, perhaps overstating the facts.
Step #3: Businessmen, alert to opportunity, learn to produce synthetic versions of the vitamins in pill form.
Step #4: A health fad of taking vitamins in pill form is established with skillful marketing and becomes a big business.
Thoughtful people surely asked: Is it a good idea to take these potent molecules by pill, rather than in whole foods accompanied by the traditional cofactor nutrients? It was a good question, one that would take several generations to answer. Unfortunately, when the truth is finally found a profitable business has become well entrenched.
News Keeps Getting Worse for Vitamins
A 2008 N. Y. Times article summarized recent studies looking for a benefit from vitamin pills:
Vitamins C & E reduce male cancer risk? In two large studies no benefit was found in taking vitamin pills, and in one the risk of cancer and diabetes actually increased.
Vitamins C & E for heart disease? A long-term study with ties to the pill industry (always a reason to be wary of any positive findings) failed to find a heart disease benefit.
Vitamin E and selenium reduce prostate cancer risk? The SELECT trial failed to show a benefit of vitamin E and selenium in pill form and there was evidence pills had made things worse.
Vitamin C pills reduce cancer risk? No, actually a Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center study found no benefit and even saw a risk that vitamin C pills invigorate the cancer.
Vitamin E improves mortality? No, actually these pills (doses >400 IU) actually worsen longevity according to a Johns Hopkins survey of 19 trials.
Vitamin A reduces lung cancer risk? Unfortunately, vitamin A and beta carotene (a perform of vitamin A) taken in pill form seem to increase the risk of lung cancer, according to the Caret 1996 study.
The Times story included other examples but the bottom line is that a healthy diet of whole foods is the best way to get your vitamins, and that pills don’t offer a healthy shortcut.
Are Vitamin Pills Ever Needed?
Here’s the short answer: sometimes, if prescribed. Older people can become deficient in vitamin B-12—especially vegans as B-12 is found in animal products—a difficult to diagnose condition with serious consequences. There is solid evidence that neurotube birth defects (NTDs) are reduced with folate pills. Vitamin D pills help people who chronically get insufficient sunshine. Other examples of proven benefit exist for certain medical conditions. So there is a place for pills and your doctor is the best person to consult. But the starting point is to eat a healthy and varied whole foods diet with minimal use of highly processed factory foods.
Please comment: It seems that pills aren't the shortcut to health and longevity—a healthy Word of Wisdom diet is still needed. It took most of the 20th century to learn that. Please share your experience.