Healthy living is all about moderation. A glass of wine is good for you; a bottle, not so much. Exercising has myriad health benefits; overdo it and you're looking at shin splints. A scoop of gelato after a meal is harmless, but park it on the couch with a pint of Ben and Jerry's and you're on the fast track to obesity.
It's a sobering reality, and yet when it comes to our multivitamins, the opposite is true. Whether it's the chewy Flintstones variety or Centrum Silver, eager pill poppers both young and old injest many thousands of times their daily recommended intake every day, all in the name of good health.
The evidence against multivitamins is mounting, however. On Tuesday, a large U.K. study following 8,000 people over six years reported that there was no change in rates of cancer or heart disease between those taking supplements and a placebo. According to the Daily Mail, in some cases pills containing vitamin E, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc could actually increase the risk of some cancers, including breast cancer and melanoma.
We've known for a long time that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help us battle cancer, and it's only natural that researchers would want to tease out the essential, disease-fighting ingredients to buck up our systems. But as Michael Pollan says in his famous New York Times piece from 2007, trying to isolate the nutrients in our food can not only be futile, but also dangerous. Compounds like beta carotene, lycopene, vitamin E, etc., known to fight the free radicals in our bodies, seem to do very little once they've been processed into pill form.
"People who take supplements are healthier than the population at large, but their health probably has nothing whatsoever to do with the supplements they take—which recent studies have suggested are worthless," says Pollan. "Supplement-takers are better-educated, more-affluent people who, almost by definition, take a greater-than-normal interest in personal health—confounding factors that probably account for their superior health."
When it comes to food, it's best to keep it simple. As Pollan suggests, stick to whole foods and prepare meals that have some "cultural" cache, whether it be authentic Japanese, Greek, or Lebanese. The fact that these cuisines have been around for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years is a testament to their nutritional value. It's a winning strategy, and not too tough a pill to swallow.