What exactly are vitamins, and aren’t they in food?

Before we get started, let’s quickly talk about what vitamins actually are, and why I recommend certain types to my clients and athletes.  Basically, vitamins are organic molecules that humans need for everyday bodily functioning, regulation, and cellular repair.  We need to get them from food and other sources because humans do not produce them internally.

Theoretically, a person eating a “healthy” diet should get all of the necessary trace minerals, nutrients, and vitamins from the food they are eating.  In fact, this is such a commonly held belief among people that don’t believe in vitamins that I bet you have heard it at least once before.

The problem with this type of thinking is that, for the most part, it is just wrong.  In order for somebody to be getting all of the vitamins they need from their diet alone, they would have to be eating an enormously diversified diet filled with vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, meats, legumes, and more on a daily basis.  Additionally, they would have to be eating insane quantities of the above foods because modern foods tend to be stripped of the vital nutrients and vitamins that they are supposed to contain.

Modern and conventional farming practices that use pesticides and fertilizers not only make the food taste bland and flavorless (just ask any high-end chef), but they also strip the food of the nutrients.  On top of that, much of our food goes through refinement and processing to make it last longer and taste better, which further strips the food of its nutrients.  With that being said, it might have been possible, 100 or so years ago before modern farming techniques were employed, to acquire all necessary vitamins and nutrients from food alone, but now the situation has changed dramatically.  Not only will you have to be eating a very intensely diverse healthy diet, but now you will also have to consume even MORE of the same healthy foods that would have provided you with everything you needed 100 years ago in order to get the same amount of vitamins.

This is hard and extremely unrealistic for most people.  Who has the time to prepare all of that food?  I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the time, or the capacity, to eat 25 cups of spinach just to get my daily value of iron.

This is where vitamins can help!  Vitamin supplements can help nourish your body and give you the trace minerals and nutrients that you may be missing from your diet.  Be careful though, there are many snake oil salesmen in the supplement industry, and not all vitamins are needed or even good for you.

The two categories of vitamin supplements

For generalization purposes, we will focus on the two types of vitamin supplement categories which are synthetic vitamins and food based vitamins.

Synthetic vitamins like the title implies, are synthetic.  They are chemicals made in a lab that only chemically resemble vitamins found in food and plants. Functionally, they are quite different. Synthetic vitamins are cheap for manufacturers to make and are more stable meaning that they can be stored for years without going bad.  They can be added to our food (fortified milk has added synthetic vitamins) or put into supplement tabs, cap, liquids, or gels.  Some common synthetic vitamins are retinyl acetate (vitamin A), thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), ascorbic acid (vitamin C),  trimethylhydroquinone (vitamin E), and the list goes on and on.

Food-based vitamins like the title implies, are vitamins that come from food.  There are a few supplement and vitamin manufacturers out there that have chosen not to use synthetic vitamins in their products.  These companies use capsules containing a whole host of concentrated vegetables, fruits, nuts, and herbs such as basil, guava, broccoli, and kale to deliver plant-based phytonutrients and vitamins that come from the food itself, not chemicals made in a lab.  The manufacturers are pretty good at giving you the wide variety of vitamins you need.  Some common food sources used in food-based vitamins include carrots (vitamin A), black beans (vitamin B1), berries (vitamin C), seed oils (vitamin E).

Which is better?  Food-based, or synthetic?

It is my opinion as a personal trainer that if you have made the choice to supplement with a multi-vitamin, then the food based variety is your best option.

Studies on synthetic vitamins have shown that they are significantly less bio-available and absorbable when compared to the natural versions.  The term “bio-availabe” refers to how well the vitamin can be broken down, absorbed, and utilized after it is ingested.  Because synthetic vitamins are lab made chemicals that do not appear in nature, the body simply does not know what to do with them when they are taken.  Frequently, synthetic vitamins will enter your body, and leave without being absorbed or giving you any benefit.  Some studies have even shown that synthetic vitamins can actually be bad for you because they are very taxing on the body.

On the other hand, food-based supplements are MUCH  more bio-available and absorbable when comapred to their synthetic counterparts. Because these vitamins are in their natural form (coming from fruits, veggies, and other living organisms, like yeast), the body knows exactly what to do with them when ingested.  The body can easily break them down, and put them to use towards nourishing your body!

If you are interested in giving food-based vitamins a try, I recommend you get Vitamin Code by Garden of Life.  They are an awesome company that make way more than just vitamins.  Almost all of their products are plant-based, organic, and GMO free.  There are other great brands out there, but these are the ones I use and I love them.  Try the links below if you want to give them a shot!

Garden of Life Vitamin Code Men’s Multi-Vitamin Capsules, 120 Count


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