Many people understand the importance of good nutrition, but believe that a daily vitamin pill will substitute for actually eating the fruits and vegetables that they know are good for them.
The more we learn about nutrition and the human body, however, the more we realize the importance of eating whole foods. That is why the American Dietetic Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture still recommend that we eat two to four servings of fruit and three to five servings of vegetables a day.
Here is an example of what science has found. During the last 15 years, a number of studies have shown that people who eat a diet rich in beta-carotene have a lower rate of several kinds of cancer. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant chemical naturally found in foods such as sweet potatoes, winter squash and carrots, and is also available in a pure, synthetic form.
The pure form of beta-carotene has become a popular dietary supplement, either by itself or as an ingredient in multi-vitamin pills. A number of recent studies, though, have not shown that taking beta-carotene in pill form lessens the risk of cancer.
Why should a nutrient in a pill be less effective than the same nutrient obtained from food?
Scientists are still studying this issue, but one thing seems clear: beta-carotene and other nutrients are most beneficial to health when they are consumed in combination with each other, as naturally found in foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.
These foods contain not only the well-known vitamins (A, B, C, etc.) that are often found in vitamin pills, but also hundreds of naturally occurring substances, including carotenoids, flavonoids, isoflavones and protease inhibitors.
These substances appear to protect against cancer, heart disease and other chronic health conditions. They work in different ways, and we are only beginning to understand their healthy role. Often, though, they work best when in combination with each other.
There is nothing wrong with taking multi-vitamin supplements to help ensure that we get certain nutrients every day. Pills, however, will never be able to give us the healthy combination of phytochemicals and other substances found naturally in food.
These can only be gotten from eating a varied diet, rich in plant foods. Fruits and vegetables in particular are virtual gold mines of health-enhancing substances. Don’t cheat yourself of their benefits by relying on supplements that contain just a few of the better-known nutrients.