Vitamins the Old-Fashioned Way


The basil never quite recovered from our good intentions. For four weeks now it has languished, burned and yellow, after we sprayed a mineral solution to correct a supposed manganese deficiency. Apparently, it is possible to be overzealous with nutrient supplements.

It can happen to humans, too. In the early 1980s, some women began taking megadoses of vitamin B-6 to ease symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Within several months many noticed numb feet, loss of sensation in the hands, even an inability to work. Impairments began to clear up after the supplements were withdrawn, but some permanent damage did occur.

Until that time everyone (including researchers and dietitians) believed that, like other water-soluable vitamins, B-6 could not reach toxic concentrations in the body. Then there was the case of a woman who took megadoses of vitamin C while she was pregnant. After birth, the baby developed symptoms of scurvy because its system was used to higher doses of vitamin C and couldn't get adjusted to more normal ones.

It is tempting to ignore nutritionists who would have us obtain vitamins and minerals the old-fashioned way-eating a wholesome, varied diet. It is so much more exciting to join the euphoric crowd of people in the vitamin aisle who wish to slow their aging processes, avoid getting cancer, or boost their immune systems with a fancy little pill. And there are lots of us in that aisle. Fully half the American population takes a nutrient supplement regularly, collectively spending billions of dollars each year.

The supplement industry has capitalized both on our innate desire to "take something" as well as on the many recent legitimate, and truly exciting, studies showing that vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals play a much more complex role in the body's health than previously thought. Vitamins-the substances, not the pills-have become superstars. Their cancer-preventing properties have been well-documented. So have their abilities to stave off cardiovascular disease, birth defects, bone loss, cataracts.

New scientific methods in genetic decoding and molecular experiments, as well as recent cross-cultural comparisons of diet, have led to many of these discoveries, reopening a field that thought it was finished after curing rickets, scurvy, and beriberi. The official number of basic nutrients has expanded until it is now an industrial-strength list that includes such substances as zinc, copper, iodine, manganese, molybdenum, cobalt, fluorine, vandium, nickel, arsenic.

You can read about these discoveries in the almost weekly offering of media pieces on nutritional health. Of note is the fact that in every article one or more experts warn people not to rely on pills, but rather to get vitamins from their diet. They say this is because food contains all sorts of vitamin combinations, different carriers, absorption facilitators, antioxidant protectors, and other benefits such as fiber and water. A pill just can't compete-the carotenoid family, for instance, has 499 other members besides the popular beta-carotene. Thus eating a wide variety of foods-vegetables, fruits, grains, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, legumes, nuts-is very important.

How about eating a good diet and taking a vitamin pill for insurance? Not really a good idea because of the risk of ingesting toxic levels. However, some people who may need to take a vitamin supplement include: those taking medications that interfere with the body's use of nutrients (aspirin, barbiturates, oral contraceptives); people recovering from surgery or serious injury; pregnant or lactating women; vegans; anyone exposed to high levels of carcinogens such as lead, mercury, dry cleaning chemicals, gasoline, or cigarette smoke.

In summary, vitamin supplements can never replace real food, enough sleep, physical exercise, happy moments, or spiritual health. Somehow our culture has made a dangerous practice of substituting those precious things with a pill. So be resourceful and creative at your table and with your time. Be thankful (and a bit embarrassed) that we live in a country where overdosing on basic nutrients has become a possibility. Go have a carrot.

Homemade Ranch Dressing

Good for encouraging the consumption of many raw vegetables, especially carrots.

Wisk together:

1 cup mayonnaise (can be low-fat)
1/2 cup buttermilk (adjust for thick or thin dressing)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dry ground mustard powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. onion powder
1 T. dry parsley or 1/4 cup chopped fresh

CAREY BURKETT, former assistant to the editor at Sojourners, is now an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.


Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Vitamins the Old-Fashioned Way"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines