Vitamin Pills
March 26, 2010 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Why is it a bad idea to get one's nutritional needs entirely from vitamin pills and whatnot, and eat whatever one wants for calories?
posted by fizzzzzzzzzzzy to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Because the "whatever else" could very well contain a bad balance of protein, carbs, and fat, and could result in obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, poor kidney and liver function, poor digestion, etc.
posted by Danf at 3:45 PM on March 26, 2010

See here and here.
posted by cooker girl at 3:47 PM on March 26, 2010

Because vitamin pills don't comprise 'nutritional needs.' They can be handy, but in some ways they're really more of a scam.

What you need to understand is that there are no such things as calories. 'Calories' are not little particles of foodiness that you can consume. Calories were a measure of heat which can be burnt over time by a chemical process, but that measure has been so watered-down by the diet industry that it's pretty much useless at this point.

Think about it this way: your body needs complex sugars called carbohydrates. One important form of these complex sugars is protein. That comes in different forms, and several of those are needed for synthesis into the body's own cells. That process – the turning of complex sugars within foods into cellular material – is an astoundingly complicated one, and it can't be reduced to the calorie-burning metaphor. It's probably a good idea to just drop that metaphor altogether and start trying to understand more deeply what's going on in your body.

In the mean time, keep in mind: what you eat always impacts your body, no matter what. It's not just a processing plant that can accept anything so long as it gets a few bare essentials; everything you eat impacts you.
posted by koeselitz at 4:00 PM on March 26, 2010


If you think vitamin pills = "one's nutritional needs," you need to read Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. We don't know everything about how food works. Assuming that we know everything isn't science; it's scientism, or, as Pollan calls it, nutritionism. It's a superstition.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:09 PM on March 26, 2010

(To be clear, I think vitamin pills can be useful to deal with specific deficiencies. I don't think many people would disagree with this.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:11 PM on March 26, 2010

Because the delivery system for the calories can be beneficial or harmful, and we have more experience (and evolution too) with the effects of fresh fruits and veggies on the body than we do with Ho Hos and Twinkies.
posted by zippy at 4:12 PM on March 26, 2010

As everyone else has said, we don't know everything about how our body takes in nutrients from food. There are some things our body needs in order to process certain nutrients, that are contained in the food where you'd find that nutrient naturally, but aren't included with a vitamin.
posted by Ashley801 at 4:16 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

No, you need phytochemicals. Vegetables, mostly, and also fruits and grains. Phytochemicals usually aren't in vitamin supplements, or if so, there are just one or two types included. There is also evidence that the interactions of the different nutrients in whole foods is healthful for us.
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:18 PM on March 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I use supplements daily, but I use them as supplements to my diet.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:22 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I believe the current thinking is that it is not the vitamins themselves, but what comes in conjunction along with those vitamins that makes them extra healthy.

I tried this once, actually -- I basically ate vitamins and meat. Then I realized that this diet was, er, binding. So I switched over to vitamins, meat, and fiber.

Then I realized that vegetables were much, much cheaper.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:34 PM on March 26, 2010

I remember reading somewhere that some nutrients are not absorbed very efficiently in their supplement form but are more readily absorbed from natural food stuffs that contain them.
Kinda makes sense. Throughout our evolutionary history we've evolved to absorb the nutrients we require from the food stuffs available to us. It would seem logical then that your digestive system (while very flexible at the margins) is optimized to absorb certain nutrients under a certain range of circumstances. A vitamin C pill is quite different from an orange. We'll certainly absorb vitamin C from ingesting the supplement but I'd wager that eating oranges is still healthier.

In addition most food items contain a vast array of complex and simple chemicals many of which are absorbed and utilized by the body: Phytochemicals were mentioned above, lots of organic aromatics such as found in garlic and onions which help to prevent cancer, etc...

But, regardless of all that, aren't a lot of people basically already doing this? There's a lot of people that eat whatever they want (mostly worthless bad stuff) and there's many people that use supplements. There's got to be an overlap. It'd be interesting to see a study...
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:42 PM on March 26, 2010

The simplest answer is an evolutionary one. Our bodies have evolved to digest food. Eating food is a necessity, not in terms of what nutrients we derive from it, but simply in terms of passing matter through our bodies so that our digestive organs can perform their daily duties. It is not possible to invent a nutrition pill that takes care of our every need, because the fundamental need is to eat food, not pills. The nutrients are a pleasant (necessary but not sufficient) side effect of eating the food.

Eating bad food (regardless of nutrients) is bad for the body.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 4:45 PM on March 26, 2010

Oh dear, koeselitz has things a bit confused.

First, a calorie is a measure of how much energy is contained in a sample, that can be liberated as heat when the sample is burned. It's a real unit of measure although not used much in science any more, having been replaced by the joule. It's still used to describe how energy-dense a portion of food is, although it gets confusing because dietary calories are actually kilocalories (kcals or capital-C Calories), but nobody is ever careful about that distinction (maybe that's what he means by "watered down by the diet industry"?). Calories tell you nothing about the composition of a sample, just how much energy you'd get if you burned it. Our metabolism is a very slow, controlled form of burning, so calories are a reasonably useful measure of energy density even though they say nothing about nutrition.

Second, proteins are not complex carbohydrates. Proteins are polymers of amino acids, not of sugars. We can break down sugar molecules and use the bits and pieces to synthesize some - but not all - of the amino acids we need to build our own proteins. Remember all that stuff about complementary proteins, and vegetarians should always eat beans with their corn, etc? That's because we need to get certain amino acids from our foods, and if we don't eat these essential amino acids we can't use the others properly.

However, the gist is right - there's more to nutrition than simple calories and a few vitamins and minerals. The big picture is complicated and still under investigation, and pretty much everyone upthread has already dealt with the question nicely, but I just wanted to clarify a few points.

posted by Quietgal at 4:50 PM on March 26, 2010 [15 favorites]

There's more to food than fuel and the rather narrow slice of chemicals that we commonly call "vitamins" and package into pills.

Insoluble fiber, for example. And you need a variety of foods in order to get complete proteins. This latter point is why some food combinations exist in a cultural sense -- rice and beans, for example, supplement each other, protein-wise.

There is also such a thing as rabbit starvation, where you do just fine calorically but lack the proper combination of nutritional elements.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:02 PM on March 26, 2010

Well, to be honest, if you eat everything you want, you generally do get all the vitamins and whatnot that you need to be healthy. The problem is that you do tend to get too much of things, not too little. You also run into problems if you limit your diet.
posted by smackfu at 5:07 PM on March 26, 2010

Everyone knows carrots are good for you. Many people know it's the beta-carotene in carrots that's good for you. So you should be able to take a vitamin suppliment of beta-carotene and it will be the same thing, right? Well, apparently not. It seems that scientists have not yet figured out why beta-carotene ingested directly from a carrot reacts differently from beta-carotene ingested just on its own. Because it's not the same thing. That's why it's a bad idea to get one's nutritional needs from vitamin pills and whatnot. (Thank you for this, Michael Pollan. Read the book Omnivore's Dilema, as mentioned above - it's really interesting.)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:49 PM on March 26, 2010

You need the fiber from fruits, vegies, and whole grains or you will be one unhappy fizzzzzzzy...
posted by MsKim at 7:07 PM on March 26, 2010

A few here are quoting Michael Pollan's assertion that the benefit of real food comes from mysterious phytochemicals or trace ingredients which are not available in vitamin form because they haven't been discovered yet. To my knowledge, this assertion is currently unproven.

Skeptic and physician Dr Steven Novella has suggested that the main reason real food, such as fruits and vegetables, is important isn't so much due to any mysterious organic pixie-dust it contains but that it is much less calorically dense. In other words, if we fill up on spinach, peppers and beans we're not filling up on meat, sugar and salty convenience foods.
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:13 PM on March 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here are the essential nutrients, where essential is defined as required for survival and not able to be made in sufficient quantities by the body:

Various micronutrients (vitamins and minerals, too many to list)
Protein (as a source of nitrogen)
Protein (as a source of the essential amino acids)
Electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium)
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-6 fatty acids

That's what you need to survive. As a ludicrous example, if you decided to give up food entirely and live off of a multivitamin + calories from coke, you would die.

While not essential, there are many other nutrients that improve your health and well being, such as fiber and phytochemicals.
posted by reishus at 8:27 PM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

We have to consume citric acid (or malic acid) in our diets because we need a lot of it and cannot synthesize it for ourselves. Citric acid isn't considered a vitamin and I don't think they include it in vitamin tablets. (At least, it isn't included in the one I take.)

I could be remembering this wrongly, but I was under the impression that steroid hormones all were based on a fundamental chemical structure that we cannot synthesize, so we need it in our diets.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:32 PM on March 26, 2010

I thought that pyruvate (produced from glucose) was enough to get the critic acid cycle going.
posted by reishus at 8:23 AM on March 27, 2010

As everyone else has said, we don't know everything about how our body takes in nutrients from food. There are some things our body needs in order to process certain nutrients, [that are contained in the food where you'd find that nutrient naturally]*, but aren't included with a vitamin.


Get The Most Nutrition From Your Veggies (NPR):
"Tomatoes are certainly nutritious — a good source of the antioxidants lycopene and beta-carotene. But consider this: if you eat a tomato without adding a little fat — say a drizzle of olive oil — your body is unlikely to absorb all these nutrients."

(*Fat's not included in a tomato either. But the upshot is similar.)
posted by sentient at 12:45 PM on March 27, 2010

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