Some Hard Facts About Vitamins and Minerals (Part 1)

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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  • Deb

    I take B complex for nerve pain (unrelated to diabetes). When I asked my doctor if I should take more, she said that taking too much of some B vitamins can destroy taste buds. I sure don’t want to lose those!

  • Bob Fenton

    Excellent post – and so true! If only people would read and believe! It is also true that many will not tell their doctors about what supplements they are taking because they are “natural” and they don’t realize the conflicts with some prescription medications.

    Can’t wait to see part 2 now.

  • Diabetic Survival Kit

    Some people prefer to take pills because that is an easier solution than learning to eat correctly, getting enough sleep, and getting an appropriate amount of exercise. When given in pill form,many of the vitamins do not provide the same benefit as provided in food and may cause harm. For example, I have seen patients taking too much vitamin C have kidney stones. I have also seen people take too much vitamin D have toxicity and high calcium levels. Choose these wisely, and make sure there is evidence showing benefit. Also remember that too much of a good thing may not be a good thing.

  • acampbell

    Hi Deb,

    Actually, a deficiency in B vitamins, along with zinc, can impair your taste buds. But, taking more B vitamins doesn’t help you taste foods better!

  • Marge B

    Diabetic for 15 yrs. I take nutritional supplements and I’m also a natural health practitioner for 23 yrs. I can’t begin to tell you how many people are deficient in vitamins and mineral. Ahhh if it was that easy to get them from our foods. You have to eat them first.Many people don’t even eat veggies or fruit or even enough, if they do eat them. The food we eat is nothing like our parents and grandparents ate. The soil has nothing left but the pesticides and synthetic fertilizer sprayed on them. The FDA has a MDR (minimum daily requirement)listed, but you must realize that is hardly what is needed to be really healthy. Take Vit. C – what the FDA allows is just barely enough so you don’t get scurvy. Most people are deficient in B’s, magnesium and essential fatty acids – especially omega 3’s because most oils people use are 6’s and it needs to be more omega 3’s. Diabetics are known to be very low in Magnesium. Many of the requirements for insulin require magnesium and other minerals and vit. as well. Using a low carb diet, herbs and supplements preventively, I have none of the diabetic issues one would expect to have at my age (64). Also know that many health issues are actually nothing more than nutritional deficiencies.

  • rocky

    Greetings, I have discovered very, very, very few Americans that wish to take the natural approach to diabetes. As noted above, the easier, softer way is to pop some magic pills and not take a walk daily. But how do I know the pills being prescribed to me will attend to the specifics of my blood disorder? There are no guarantees, only statistical analysis of data. I was diagnosed with diabetes in 2004 but I have never pigeon holed my diabetes with a number. Why? Who cares? Will that help me eat food with less sugar and starch? My doctor said metformin works in about 70 percent of the cases. What if I’m a 30 percenter? My doctor told me I also need to take a heart pill and a statin because the drug companies promote a three pronged attack against diabetes. I told him I saw no value taking heart medication for a heart that’s been strong all my life; and my cholesterol levels have always been great. Why take medication I don’t need? He said the three together mitigate heart damage. I said, how do we know my heart is damaged? Lets run some tests to see where we stand before we blindly prescribe medication. Medication is a foreign substance to my body and all have numerous side effects.
    I began to look into a natural approach. I have always figured that I am ultimately responsible for my health. I looked at research that wasn’t funded by the drug companies. I changed my eating habits and started taking supplements which showed most favorable results for diabetics. I went for a walk every day. I was weaned off insulin after about a year. About four months later I stopped taking metformin altogether. I was taking an increasingly lower dose. I never did start those other drugs. A few months ago my hA1c read 5.5, down from 5.7 three months earlier. This dis-ease is different for each of us but for me, I found that the natural approach has worked. It is possible.

  • calgarydiabetic

    Possibly Vitamin D should be taken by us living in a Siberian like climate.

    I was popping 2000 IU per day diligently and my vitamin D level was only 94 nanomol/L with a range of 80 to 200. Probably would have gone too low without the supplement.

  • kyle

    Very informative article, thanks for writing about this.