Athletes are always looking for an edge that will boost their performance and promote their success. Many see vitamin supplements as a key component in their training regimen. However, one of the longest standing debates in the field of nutrition is whether vitamin supplements are truly necessary for the average person. Here we look at how vitamins are used by the body and the top 3 reasons to stop taking supplements… with one exception.
The Role of Vitamins
Vitamins are substances that are only needed in small amounts but are crucial to good health and normal development. Vitamins act as coenzymes in energy metabolism, meaning they help our body use the food we eat to provide us with the energy to do such things as breathing, pumping our heart, and fueling our daily activities. They also help our body build and repair tissue and absorb other nutrients. And finally, some vitamins are antioxidants which protect against oxidation of cell membranes.
Vitamins are classified as being fat or water-soluble depending upon whether they dissolve in fat or water. Vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble vitamins, whereas the B vitamins and vitamin C are water-soluble and are more readily excreted. Toxicity is more common with fat-soluble vitamins because they are stored in the body and aren’t as readily excreted as their water-soluble counterparts.
Vitamin supplementation is well established to treat deficiencies and to fill in the diet when there is inadequate access to a particular nutrient. For example, athletes with highly restrictive diets. In fact, the practice of taking vitamin supplements roots back many years to the days when scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency), pellagra (niacin deficiency) and rickets (vitamin D deficiency) were common due to poor geographic access to these nutrients and poor diet variety. Folic acid supplements are also recommended for women attempting to conceive to reduce the risk of a neural tube defect in their babies. However, vitamin supplements are generally not helpful for the average healthy person living in communities that have good access to food.
Top 3 Reasons to Stop Taking Vitamins
1. No Positive Effect
For a healthy person, who does not follow a restrictive diet, food is the best source of vitamins and minerals. Numerous studies have shown little to no benefit to including daily vitamin supplements in your lifestyle.
In an article that appeared in The Annals of Internal Medicine researchers at Johns Hopkins reviewed studies to determine if there was evidence to support the daily use of multivitamins. They found that multivitamin use did not reduce the risk for heart disease and cancer, and did not reduce the risk for age-related mental decline. In addition, when they compared those who took multivitamins to those who did not, there was no difference in the rate of heart attacks, heart surgeries, and death between the groups.
Similarly, a 2018 article published by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reviewed studies of vitamin supplementation conducted between January 2012 and October 2017. They found that using vitamin C, D, and calcium supplements did not help prevent cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart disease or cancer.
2. Some Negatively Affect Your Health
When we get our vitamins and minerals from food, it’s hard to overdo it. I mean, how many carrots can a person eat before they get sick of them or full? But vitamins and minerals supplements are easy to take… just pop a pill or two, and you’ll quickly meet and exceed your needs. So “what’s the harm?” you’re thinking. Well, remember, some vitamins are fat-soluble and are stored in our body. If we save too much of these vitamins can be toxic.
As a result, some studies looking into the role of vitamin supplementation for disease prevention have met with surprising results. The Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET) looked at the possible chemoprotective effect of vitamin A and beta-carotene supplements. CARET was stopped short in 1996 as taking vitamin A and beta-carotene was found to potentially increase rates of lung cancer development those who smoked and workers exposed to asbestos.
Similarly, a review of studies looking into vitamin E supplementation for cardiovascular disease demonstrates that vitamin E supplementation is not helpful for preventing cardiovascular disease, is associated with higher rates of heart failure and hemorrhagic strokes but may be helpful to those with diabetes who have a specific genetic makeup (i.e. the Hp 2-2 genotype).
Think you’re playing it safe with water-soluble vitamins? Even then, more doesn’t mean better. High doses of zinc taken over a long period can result in neurological symptoms like numbness and tingling. And for athletes, high doses of antioxidant vitamins like vitamin C may negatively affect beneficial adaptive responses to high-intensity exercise. However, there is some evidence to suggest that vitamin C may be helpful in reducing the duration of a cold in athletes. Even so, you can easily meet your needs for vitamin C through diet.
3. They are Costly
In 2012, an estimated 45% of people over the age of 50 were taking daily multivitamins. In fact, in 2010 Americans spent $28 billion on nutritional supplements and $11 billion on multivitamin supplements specifically. Such an expenditure may be justified if there was value to this practice but for the majority of the population, daily vitamin supplementation has no health benefit.
… And One Exception
Vitamin D helps our bodies store and use calcium and phosphorous for strong bones and teeth, and can help protect against osteoporosis. Vitamin D also helps keep your immune system healthy and may reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Also, vitamin D may influence muscular strength.
Vitamin D recommendations are heavily debated in the scientific community. While Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) guidelines suggest intakes in the range of 600 IU (15 mcg) to 800 IU (20 mcg) daily depending on age many nutrition experts suggest daily intakes in the range of 1000-2000 IU for maintenance.
We meet our vitamin D needs from a combination of diet and sun exposure. Dietary sources include fortified foods like milk, oily fish, egg yolks and liver. Many of us do not meet our needs from diet alone. We also make vitamin D using UVB radiation from the sun. However, during the winter months, the UVB radiation does not reach latitudes greater than 35 degrees in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In Canada, this means we need another source of vitamin D between October and March.
There is a strong case for vitamin D supplementation in athletes. A 2011 study in college athletes found that lower levels of vitamin D were associated with higher levels of upper respiratory illness in the winter and spring. Another vitamin D supplementation trial in female navy recruits found that recruits receiving 800 IU/day of vitamin D for eight weeks had a 20% lower incidence in stress fractures than those who did not receive the supplement. And finally, a 2011 study in injured athletes found that poor vitamin D status delays rehabilitation and recovery following orthopaedic surgery.
Vitamin supplements may be necessary for some and but have little benefit for most. It is important to speak to your health care provider before beginning any vitamin regimen to make sure you only supplement vitamins that are necessary and avoid possible toxicities. As always, food is the best source for nutrients and a balanced diet is your best bet for great health.
NBJ’s Supplement Business Report 2010. United States: Penton Media; 2010. Nutrition Business Journal.
NBJ’s Supplement Business Report 2011. United States: Penton Media; 2011. Nutrition Business Journal.
Nutritional planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one on one or group nutritional counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. Also, the Food For Thought Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!