Some Hard Facts About Vitamins and Minerals (Part 1)

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Ah, if only vitamins and minerals could live up to all of the claims about them: We’d be young, healthy, happy, wrinkle-free, and never have a cold again. If only that were the case.

The truth is that vitamins and minerals are essential — we couldn’t live without them. While some of them do seem to play a role in disease prevention, they aren’t necessarily the miracles that some have made them out to be. And since I’m frequently asked if people with diabetes need to take special vitamins and minerals, or in larger amounts than people without diabetes, I thought I’d use the opportunity to hopefully clear up some of the common misconceptions that are always circulating.

In case you need a refresher, vitamins and minerals are substances that the body needs to grow and develop normally. Vitamins are “organic,” meaning that they come from living things (plants and animals) whereas minerals are inorganic (they come from the soil and water). Both are essential for health and without them, we’d suffer from a number of diseases and problems, like scurvy, rickets, and osteoporosis. The body requires only a certain, relatively small amount of vitamins and minerals to maintain health. For this reason, vitamins and minerals are often referred to as “micronutrients,” whereas carbohydrate, protein, and fat are “macronutrients.”

True or False: You don’t need to worry about getting too many water-soluble vitamins, because they aren’t stored in the body.

False. Many people don’t realize that getting too much of certain water-soluble vitamins can be dangerous. B vitamins and vitamin C are water-soluble vitamins; they’re not stored in the body and they’re excreted in the urine. However, consuming large amounts of vitamin B6 over a long period of time may cause neuropathy (nerve damage), skin lesions, photosensitivity, nausea, and heartburn. Getting too much folic acid can mask a vitamin B12 deficiency, and some research has shown that too much folic acid can also increase the risk of certain types of cancers, including colon, prostate, and lung cancers.

True or False: Popping a vitamin/mineral supplement will give you more energy.

False. While vitamins, especially the B vitamins, help the body process food to be used for energy, vitamins themselves don’t give you energy. Your body gets energy from the food that you eat, in the form of calories. Carbohydrate, protein, and fat (as well as alcohol) contain calories. Vitamins and minerals don’t. Popping vitamins like “pep pills” isn’t the way to fuel your body; by doing so, you run the risk of overdosing.

True or False: People with diabetes need to take special vitamins/minerals.

Maybe. But perhaps not for the reasons that you think. We know that most people can benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement because 50% to 80% of the population doesn’t get enough vitamin D from food alone, and may very well be deficient. Other people with diabetes may not get enough calcium or iron. But this isn’t really due to their diabetes; it’s due to other factors. Now, people with diabetes who take metformin may need a vitamin B12 supplement because metformin may impair absorption of this vitamin. The point is that there’s no hard and fast evidence that any particular vitamin or mineral plays a role in glycemic control. In other words, taking XYZ vitamin or mineral isn’t going to miraculously help you improve your blood glucose levels.

True or False: If taking the recommended amount of a vitamin or mineral is good, then taking more is even better.

False. The FDA establishes Recommended Daily Allowance for all vitamins and minerals. Getting into megadose territory (which is at least 10 times greater than the RDA) means you’re getting into the danger zone, at least for some of these micronutrients. While we eventually may learn that taking large amounts of a particular vitamin or mineral can possibly prevent a certain disease, we’re not quite there yet. And knowing that too much of many vitamins and minerals can be quite harmful — kidney damage, nerve damage, hair loss, liver problems, nausea, and diarrhea are just some of the possible consequences of megadosing — it’s best to play it safe, unless your health-care provider has prescribed a larger amount for a particular reason, say, to correct a deficiency.

More next week!

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