Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Why the home test for vitamin quality is crap

 

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I’ve had a number of people mention to me about testing vitamin quality by attempting to dissolve them. While this seems like a good idea, initially, upon further consideration, I can think of a number of flaws with attempting this at home.

The Consumer Lab provides a step-by-step guide to testing the disintegration of vitamins at home. They recommend putting the pill in water warmed to body temperature and then stirring continuously for 30 minutes, maintaining the water temperature. Unless the pill is chewable, enteric coated, or timed-released, it should break down. The implication is, if it doesn’t, it’s not breaking down when you ingest it and your body isn’t getting the nutrients from it. But, there are some problems with this premise.

First, your stomach is a highly acidic environment. Stomach acid usually has a pH of 1.5-3.5. Water, on the other hand, has a pH of about 7 (i.e. neutral). If you wanted to mimic the conditions of the stomach, you would need to use warmed lemon juice, or a similar acid.

Second, creating a warm, acidic environment isn’t enough. Most vitamins are recommended to be consumed with food. During digestion, the stomach releases a whole host of digestive enzymes which work to break down your food, and some of them would likely also have an impact on breaking down any vitamin and mineral supplements. Together the stomach secretions and jumbled-up food forms “chyme” which is generally ready to leave the stomach after 1 to 4 hours. That time-frame gives your vitamin a whole lot longer to break-down than the 30 minute warm water home test does. The stomach also secretes “intrinsic factor” which essential for the absorption of vitamin B-12 (don’t forget to add that to your cup of body temperature lemon juice).

Third, digestion doesn’t end in the stomach. After the chyme moves from the stomach to the small intestine which is actually where most digestion takes place over 3 to 10 hours.

Fourth, as the Consumer Lab test notes, a number of vitamins are designed to take long periods to break-down (i.e. timed-released). Others (i.e. enteric coated) are designed not to break-down until after exiting the acidic environment of the stomach and entering the neutral environment of the small intestine.

Fifth, have you ever shat out an intact vitamin pill? Unless your body’s stashing whole pills somewhere along your digestive tract, it’s probably safe to say that it’s being broken-down along the way.

Sixth, just because a supplement is breaking-down in your body doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s being absorbed. Determining that it dissolves in a cup of warm water won’t tell you if you’re obtaining any nutrients from it.


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Vitamin supplements: deadly or life saving?

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Last week everyone was getting worked up because an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine advised against taking vitamin supplements. I wish that I could unequivocally state that they were correct (or incorrect) in this assessment. Unfortunately, this is a complicated issue and I don’t think that we have all of the answers yet.

We know that there are problems with the supplement industry. It’s not well-regulated. Some herbal supplements were recently found to contain ingredients other than those stated on the label, some even contained none of the sole ingredient they claimed to contain. It’s not a stretch to presume that this issue extends to supplements beyond the herbal variety. Last year researchers found that vitamin D supplement often contained hugely variable quantities of vitamin D, even within the same bottle.

An issue unique to multivitamins is that some minerals impede absorption of other minerals when consumed together (for example, zinc and copper). Other vitamins and minerals actually work better together (think calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D). When we’re taking a multivitamin we’re almost certainly not absorbing many of the vitamins and minerals listed on the label (assuming the label is correct in the first place). Does this mean that we should give up on supplements altogether? Possibly not.

The editorial refers to three specific studies. The important thing to note if that these studies looked at people who were not nutrient deficient. The problem with this is that many of us are nutrient deficient. Canadians have difficulty meeting their nutrient needs for calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D through food alone. We also tend to fall short in consumption of potassium as well as EPA and DHA (essential omega-3 fatty acids). There is also the fact that individual nutrient needs vary and that increased nutrients are needed during specific life stages. For example, folic acid is needed early in pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects in infants (1) and many nutrient needs are increased during pregnancy and lactation. Smokers have increased vitamin C needs and athletes have increased needs for nearly everything. Infants require vitamin D supplementation to avoid rickets. Vegans and seniors need vitamin B12 supplements. Etc.

Another problem with the basis on which the authors of the anti-supplement editorial made their recommendation is that they were looking at extremes. They asked: Do multivitamins prevent cancer? Cognitive decline? Heart attacks? Just because vitamin supplements don’t seem to prevent these conditions doesn’t mean that there aren’t other potential benefits to supplementation. More “minor” aliments may be ameliorated by consumption of supplements. We also may have been simply too late to see benefit from supplementation in those involved in those studies. As with osteoporosis which is a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences, these diseases are likely a result of exposures and lifestyles starting in utero.

So, should we take vitamin and mineral supplements or not? I think that it’s a bit of a gamble either way. On one hand you may not be getting what you bargained for in a supplement. On the other hand, you might be risking nutrient deficiency by avoiding all supplements.

Obviously it’s best to try to meet your nutrient needs through food. Realistically, most of us do not do this. If you’re able to determine what specific nutrients you’re lacking in your diet then it’s best to supplement with only those nutrients. Try to select supplements that have an NHP number on them to ensure a minimal level of regulation. And, of course, too much of anything can be a bad thing. Unless advised by your MD or nurse practitioner to take a high dose (and even then, you might want to question them) of any supplement avoid reaching or surpassing the upper limit.


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Grocery store lessons: Vitamin Water

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I never blogged about Vitamin Water before because I assumed that everyone knew that it wasn’t a healthy choice. On the off-chance that I was mistaken I thought that I’d write a quick post to let you know that Vitamin Water is not a healthy choice.

Long before I started studying nutrition I loved Vitamin Water. I discovered it while on a trip to New York with my family. I didn’t read nutrition labels back then. I was young and assumed that the promises made (e.g. energy, immunity, focus) were legitimate. Plus, the stuff was delicious (to my unrefined teenage palette). Anytime someone I knew was headed to the States I would ask them to bring me back a bottle or two. I even contacted the company to try to get them to distribute to Canada. Of course, by the time they finally did, I had figured out that they were just fortified sugar water.

The benefits that the beverage names imply are incongruous with the actual ingredients. Take focus for example, which is suggested for afternoon or late night consumption. What does that name mean to you? To me it suggests that it will help you to focus on a task at hand when you’re mentally and possibly physically drained. But the medicinal ingredients: vitamin A, lutein, vitamin C, vitamin B3, vitamin B5, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 are not known to contribute to mental focus. Admittedly, a deficiency in B vitamins (especially B12) may leave you feeling sluggish. Regardless, there aren’t enough of any of the vitamins present to have an effect on your heath, positive or negative. The 32 grams of sugar (about 8 teaspoons!) on the other hand, is certainly not going to do you any good.

Next time you’re tempted by a Vitamin Water try to think of it as expensive Kool Aid. Your body and mind (not to mention your wallet) will be much better off with a glass of water.


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The new improved vegetarian Soylent Green

I came across this blog the other day in which the author has created what he believes to be the optimal meal replacement using basic food stuffs, vitamins, and minerals. He calls it “Soylent” of all things. I hesitated before sharing this with you but I know that you’re smart enough not to go trying to make your own batch at home. Right? Right.

As any dietitian worth their salt will tell you, we don’t know for certain that its individual nutrients providing certain benefits or if it’s a more complicated effect of various nutrients in a food (or foods). This is why we promote varied and balanced diet. Long-term consumption of a meal replacement containing primarily synthetic vitamins may have dangerous consequences.

As the author himself points out, “I am not fully convinced of the diet’s safety for a physiology different than mine. What if I missed something that’s essential for someone of a different race or age group?”. This is a very important point: nutrient needs are different for women and men and for different age groups, lifestyles, etc.

I think that most of us enjoy food so a supplement like this would not be a suitable option. It’s nice that he’s being his own guinea pig (although it makes me exceedingly nervous that he’s sharing the supplement to others). Perhaps if this works for him it will be useful in feeding certain patient groups such as those suffering from anorexia nervosa. Or it might be an improvement on many of the “meal replacements” currently on the market.

 


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Spray your way to weight loss (by lightening your wallet)

Sometimes the posts just come to you. As a result of my post yesterday I gained a new follower on twitter: @weightlossspray. Really? A spray that promotes weight loss? I know that there’s been some preliminary research into reducing cravings through scents but I’m still skeptical about how effective they’ll prove to be.

Curiousity piqued, I decided to take a look at the company website. Their product SlenderMist for Weight Loss comes in four different flavours. Designed to give you “what your body needs to satisfy cravings – without overeating or the use of drugs”. Allegedly these nutrients will keep you feeling satisfied in between meals: “Dietary options today can cost a health-conscious American thousands of dollars each year, and the results may be short-lived. A proper diet and exercise schedule is still the best option, but can be difficult at first. Slender-Mist® can help you through the most trying of times, satisfying the urge to eat and replenishing your system.” I feel like I shouldn’t even have to say anything. I mean really, how is a $22.47 bottle containing 30 “servings” a more affordable option than actually eating nutritious food? The recommended usage is: “2-4 sprays, each time you feel the urge to snack and 15 minutes before each meal.” Conservatively, let’s say someone just uses it before meals, that’s three times a day. Therefore, one bottle would last 10 days. Over the course of a year this would add up to roughly $820. For a few unnecessary vitamins (these are primarily the same vitamins I was blogging about yesterday).

Two lessons here: 1. Don’t waste your money on weight loss spray vitamins. 2. Don’t use an automated system to follow people on twitter as you may end-up having them blog about your useless product.