The vitamin wars are officially over. Record the date for posterity: June 19, 2002. That’s when the American Medical Association published a radical new recommendation-most Americans should be taking vitamins.
For decades doctors derided those who used dietary supplements. These nutritional nihilists maintained that all we needed was a well-balanced diet and that extra vitamins merely created expensive urine.
Vitamin boosters, on the other hand, asserted that a well-balanced diet was a myth, especially for teenagers, older folks and busy people who ate on the run. They insisted that vitamin insurance was a good health investment.
Now the Journal of the American Medical Association, a bastion of conservative medical thinking, has come out in favor of vitamins for “chronic disease prevention.” The authors are no granola gurus. These Harvard physicians reviewed the research published on vitamins since 1966.
They conclude that while deficiency diseases like beriberi or scurvy are rarely seen, many people are at risk of other problems: “Because suboptimal vitamin status is associated with many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and osteoporosis, it is important for physicians to identify patients with poor nutrition.”
Older people, strict vegetarians, people who drink alcohol regularly and those who have problems absorbing nutrients from their digestive tracts are especially vulnerable. But as the authors note, “Most people do not consume an optimal amount of all vitamins by diet alone.”
The B vitamins are especially significant. Many people are low in folic acid, a nutrient which is particularly important in preventing birth defects, heart disease, cancer and perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease.
Tantalizing new research suggests that thiamin (vitamin B1) may be important in maintaining optimal brain function. Vitamin B12 is also critical for nerve function; mild deficiencies are more common among older people and vegetarians than many physicians may realize.
Urologists and ophthalmologists are ahead of many of their colleagues in recommending that their patients take supplements, including vitamin E, vitamin C and zinc.
Carotenoids, red and yellow pigments in vegetables, are also on the short list. Urologists are especially interested in the benefits of lycopene (found in tomatoes) for prostate health. Eye doctors, on the other hand, praise lutein (found in corn, squash and other yellow vegetables) for its apparent ability to delay the development of macular degeneration.
Many prescription drugs can interfere with the absorption or utilization of critical nutrients. We have summarized the most important of these interactions in our Guide to Drug and Nutrient Interactions. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $2 in check or money order with a long (no. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. N-61, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.
Now that the medical establishment has recognized the value of vitamin supplements, the question remains how much of what should you take. We’ll have to wait for future research to refine the answer, but for now a multivitamin makes sense.

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