Do you struggle to eat right? Do you count the piece of lettuce and slice of tomato on your burger as two servings of vegetables? Does your usual fish serving come in a deep-fried square slathered in tartar sauce? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may have considered taking a multivitamin to fill in the gaps of a less-than-perfect menu, and you have a lot of company. An estimated 110 million Americans buy vitamin supplements each year.
For those of you hoping for a salad bar in pill form, I’ve got bad news: A growing body of research says that vitamin and nutritional supplements leave a lot to be desired. While these supplements can be helpful in staving off common deficiencies, such as low iron in premenopausal women or inadequate calcium in postmenopausal women, often touted claims of cancer prevention, heart protection, and overall improved health have not been proven.
If you have a health problem related to a deficiency, it’s best to consult with your doctor on the best way to right what’s wrong. But for many women, a colorful and varied diet containing an abundance of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains, still trumps anything you can buy in a bottle. Whole foods contain not just one or a few isolated vitamins and nutrients, but a number of components—think fiber, minerals, antioxidants, water content, etc—that work together to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This summer, I challenge you to think about your food choices more holistically. Look for natural sources for the nutrients you need. Aim to get your calcium from low-fat dairy and leafy greens, and your fish oils from actual (not fried) fish. For those of you in climates where gardens will soon overflow with fresh produce, work in more servings of what’s in season near you. No matter where you are, shoot for 7–9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day (it IS possible), make at least half of your grain servings of the whole grain variety, and get plenty of protein from low-fat sources like beans, nuts, and lean meats. By the end of the season, you may find that getting your vitamins the way nature intended isn’t as hard as you thought.