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Do you really need to supplement your diet?
By Katherine Dinsdale |

TAKING CARE of number one, inside and out, has become a national preoccupation. Just how this should best be done is no easy issue; the options come from experts at our every side. The one bit of common advice available is that there is room for improvement. You can feel better, look better, be better than you are now.

One of the most popular paths to higher planes of being is the way of dietary supplements and vitamins. A little C. A little E. A little plankton and a bit of kelp. More and more of us are giving these options a shot. Our nation spends as much as $7 billion annually on vitamins, much more than we spend on toothpaste or shampoo. The $7 billion sales include vitamins sold in food, drug and general merchandise stores, as well as those sold by direct mail.

No one argues that our bodies require vitamins and minerals in some form. But after that given, the agreement screeches to an emotional halt: “You always need vitamin and mineral supplements.” “You never need vitamin and mineral supplements.” “You sometimes could use an extra vitamin or two.”

We chose to explore the vitamin question with several Dallas experts of varying persuasions on nutrition.

Dale Wingo, a Gold Key distributor for Neo-Life, is not only pro-supplements, he also tries to eat only “organically grown” fruit and vegetables or the dehydrated fruits and vegetables packaged by his company. Wingo says that for years he suffered from hypertension and hypoglyce-mia. He went to physicians and psychologists but their treatments didn’t satisfy him. Now, seven years later, the symptoms are gone. He says the products he sells turned his life around.

Neo-Life, founded in 1958, offers a line of food supplements, weight reduction aids, cleaning products, cosmetics, cook-ware (all stainless steel because aluminum, Wingo says, seems to cause senility), a mini-trampoline (Wingo, a certified “re-boundologist,” says that three minutes a day “pumps” your body) and a line of products called the NEST program, which are several dehydrated fruits and vegetables that Neo-Life distributors say are vital for survival in the event of a natural disaster.

All the products are sold in the same way Amway and Shaklee merchandise is marketed: through distributors working one-on-one with customers.

The opposite vitamin camp is led by Donald S. Wiggans, Ph.D., assistant dean for continuing education and professor of biochemistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center. He isn’t much for supplements: “You learn the basic food groups in second grade with a little badge that names them. You can hardly miss with that formula, the varied diet. It’s not difficult to be well-nourished.”

Douglas Sparks, who runs his own nutrition counseling service in North Dallas, is our middle-of-the-road man: “The nutrition field is changing rapidly. You can make data look any way you want it to-some believe that [supplementary] vitamins are needed in huge amounts; others say you never need them. I’m in the middle. That’s why I opened this office.”

Sparks says he went to Highland Park High School and dropped out because he didn’t feel well. “My health was like a roller coaster. 1 was smart, but I was eating like my friends. It didn’t hurt them, but it hurt me. Later I studied nutrition and biochemistry and then came back to Dallas to work in a doctor’s workshop in preventa-tive medicine. I have no doctor’s degree as such, but I’ve attended over 800 hours of graduate courses designed for doctors.”

Sparks has been in Dallas for four years. He charges $85 to $100 for an initial session, which includes a vitamin C tissue test, a vitamin C urinary excretion and screening test, and a hair mineral analysis. Sparks says the test is limited, but when it is administered properly he can interpret the statuses of 21 different minerals by examining a swatch of hair taken from close to the nape of the neck.

Both Wingo and Sparks have plenty of negative things to say about the diet that most of us -even the careful among us – consume. Both say they believe that, for the most part, individuals cannot get all the nutrients they need from their diets alone.

“A genetically normal person doesn’t need any of this [supplementary] stuff, if he does everything he should nutritionally; out no one does,” Wingo says, “when you figure out what you eat, no matter if you eat well, it doesn’t add up. God created us perfectly, but since then we’ve done nothing but deteriorate.”

Sparks sees the inadequacies in diet reaching far beyond the individual: “I’m really concerned about this generation raised on such a processed diet. The crime rate is higher; children score lower on learning tests. I blame the statistics a lot on the way kids eat. When they eat well their behavior is much better. And Reagan worries me; he’s making critical decisions on jelly beans.”

Certainly Sparks and Wingo aren’t alone in saying that vitamins work wonders: Vitamin A helps keep skin clear and hair lustrous. Vitamin B-Complex relieves fatigue and alleviates stress; deficiencies in this complex may explain lack of dream recall. Vitamin E helps you grow hair, prevents ulcers and makes you sexually young.

But, as Wiggans points out, “Freedom of speech allows many things to be said that aren’t true. People are led down a fairyland trail by scare tactics. Health food stores sell roots and chlorophyll-there’s no way we need these things; but they sell. ’Your child,’ they tell you, ’is marginally deficient.’ And I have friends who go for it. Every day their kids come to the table and get 10 different vitamins. It doesn’t hurt them physically, but it does educationally. They think those vitamins are the only way to health.

“And there are coaches that tell high school kids to buy packages of supplements if they want to be on the first string. This is high pressure on the kids and costs the parents all kinds of money… all those pills are is powdered skim milk.”

Vitamin C is the nutrient surrounded by the most controversy. Sparks says many people are vitamin C deficient. Frequently this results in infected, swollen glands and frequent bruising. Wiggans says that no scientific research has shown that vitamin C has any affect on the common cold and that no evidence stands to show that vitamin C helps a person avert colds. Controlled studies show no difference, he says, between the health of those who take additional C and the health of those who don’t.

Yet an article published by the Food and Drug Administration (Consumer, October 1975) suggests that vitamin C works to affect general symptoms rather than any specific type of illness, such as a cold. The article says there may be some nonspecific mechanism involved, such as depletion of vitamin C during stress.

The article also warns that the vitamin C content of food is affected by many factors, including the conditions under which the food is grown, the time and temperature involved in handling, the kind and amount of processing or cooking undergone and the conditions of storage.

But the article continues to say that “anyone who eats a sufficient number of foods known to be high in vitamin C will have no trouble obtaining the recommended amount.” Wiggans says fresh fruits aren’t the only source of C; the vitamin is available in a variety of foods including potatoes and cabbage.

Instead of proclaiming the glories of greater doses of C, as authors such as Linus Pauling (Vitamin C and the Common Cold) have done recently, the FDA article warns of possible adverse reactions to too great an amount of C: kidney stones, termination of pregnancy and interference with diagnosis of diseases involving the liver and pancreas.

Another Consumer article addresses Vitamin E-“Miracle or Myth” (July/August 1973). According to the article, there is no evidence that normal or even excessive amounts of vitamin E are harmful; but likewise, the FDA finds “no evidence to support the extravagant claims being made for supplemental vitamin E.”

But Sparks says that well-documented research done since that article was published shows that vitamin E may change clotting factor ratios and therefore could lead to less risk of clots in heart patients. Another study, he says, showed that rats lived better in smog environments when their levels of vitamin E are higher. “There are three reasons people don’t get enough vitamin E. They don’t eat whole grain, the whole grains they do eat are polluted by our environment – 80 percent of vitamin E is lost in processing -and, with age, mal-absorption of fat-soluble vitamins increases.”

Still, Sparks also warns against cure-alls. “We read an article about B-6 and we think it will save the world. One nutrient will not save the world.”

Sparks explains that vitamins and minerals work together as a team. If you have all but one of the vitamins you need, things will go wrong.

“Taking large amounts of one kind of vitamin and none of others is like putting spark plugs in your car but not bothering with tires,” says Wiggans.

Don Aird, consumer affairs officer with the FDA, is succinct about its position on the issue. “You don’t need supplemental vitamins unless they are prescribed by a doctor. Otherwise, you’re wasting your money. We have tried to make vitamins prescription-only, but the people don’t want it. They don’t want the FDA to interfere, and there’s nothing we can do.

“The laws are strong enough on vitamins, the labels are accurate and the warnings are there, but the consumer can still overdose on fat-soluble vitamins. We can’t do anything to control what he does,” Aird says.

“Our bodies do require a daily source of vitamins,” Wiggans says; “some [A,D,E and K] we store in fatty tissue for up to six months. The water-soluble vitamins [B-complex vitamins and C] are the ones you need daily-but a day or two missed won’t hurt.”

A favorite debate of vitamin peddlers is natural products vs. synthetics. “Synthetic materials,” Wingo tells us, “are made in laboratories in test tubes from alcohol or whatever. They don’t have all the elements of food. Natural foods must have a five percent natural base. The reason natural foods and supplements are more expensive is because they’re expensive to make. It takes one and a half pounds of grain to squeeze out one capsule of vitamin E. But it’s worth it. You only live once. I took synthetic A for one and a half years and it never did a thing for me.”

Wingo says he hasn’t gotten around to figuring the cost of average Neo-Life programs yet, but if you’re interested in its 30-day program, Stress 30 (one of Neo-Life’s three Uni-Pak Systems), which is “specifically designed to help combat the effects of physical and mental stress on the body,” it’ll cost you $29.50. This particular pack is for the decision-maker under pressure, the product catalog says, “the housewife, foreman, student, truck driver – anyone with deadlines to meet! Stress 30 helps you do more and do it better!”

As for the natural/synthetic question, Wiggans says, “It’s sheer lunacy, pure absolute bunk to suggest that a vitamin is ’organic.’ Vitamins, whether natural or produced, are chemical. Everything has chemistry. Fertilizers are the same way -a tomato plant doesn’t know the difference between manure and table scraps. Everything has chemistry. Chemicals are bad names. Like ’communists.’ Chemistry simply means composition.”

Wiggans and Sparks both agree that multiple vitamins are a good “insurance policy.” Multiple vitamins help make up for what you might miss when you don’t eat right, but they won’t make up for kooky crash diets. Vitamins aren’t a cover for all nutritional inadequacies.

“If you want insurance, I say go to the corner drugstore and buy a multiple vitamin such as One-A-Day,” Wiggans says. “Multiple vitamins shouldn’t cost you much more than a penny a day. They will keep you safe even if you’re an unusual eater. I don’t have any major problems with vitamin salesmen, either, unless they try to tell me that supplements are the only way to stay healthy.”

“Some people say they don’t want to spend time eating right,” Sparks says. “They say ’give me what I need in vitamins.’ I couldn’t do that -we don’t know enough to even feed rats all they need in vitamins. I emphasize diet.”

But the disdain of Wingo for physicians such as Wiggans is not hidden.

“Every year the AMA [American Medical Association] tries to scarf up vitamins and make them prescription-only. Eventually they’ll do it; they have the persistence and the money.

“But there is not a doctor alive down there in that school,” Wingo says, “who eats a balanced diet. They don’t get into medical school if they aren’t healthy specimens, but they don’t eat right. Thai’s a fact. They’re just people who don’t know beans about vitamins and they don’t research vitamins, either, because they want to spend their time researching drugs. That’s where the money is.”

Sparks, on the other hand, says doctors are beginning to learn more about nutrition. “Most physicians don’t go into as much depth as they need to, but some are beginning to. Some doctors are hiring dietitians. Doctors must remember they see sick people, and sick people may need more nutrients than the RDAs supply in order to recover. Recommended Daily Allowances [RDAs] are comfortably set for people who need an average amount of vitamins. Research shows that an individual’s need may vary 100 percent on certain nutrients. You don’t have to have a disease before you can be considered unhealthy.”

“It’s sensible to use supplements with little kiddos when they won’t eat right and with senior citizens when the machine isn’t running well and the teeth are bad and the interest in food is down. Geriatric supplements and supplements during pregnancy are smart additions,” Wiggans says.

Supplementary vitamins are also needed by some women. Wiggans says that the pre-menopausal woman loses a significant amount of iron in menstrual blood. For this reason, blood banks, he says, show that fewer men are anemic than women.

Dr. Robert Darrow, gynecologist, says he believes in well-rounded meals and iron supplements. “Women could get iron without supplements, but it’s tough. Women are exercising more now than ever before and they’re more aware of their diets. But unfortunately, the women who are aware of their diets, who exercise and who consider taking vitamins, are not usually the ones who need supplements.

“Women taking birth control pills need additional B-6 and zinc. The deficiency of these nutrients causes depression, listless-ness and sometimes feelings of dejection,” Darrow says.

Vegetarians may also need special supplemental nutrients. Wiggans says vegetarians often have problems getting enough animal protein. If they eat eggs or milk products, they have no trouble, but the pure vegetarian gets only two or three grams of protein from each serving of vegetables he eats. The RDA for protein is 50 grams. Soybeans and other beans are good sources of protein. However, Wiggans says protein deficiency for non-vegetarians is hard to find, even in the poorest areas of Dallas.

As is often the case in medical disputes,there is little conclusive evidence for anyposition. Some swear by vitamins in mega-doses; others swear they’re unnecessary.The most useful advice We’ve found is toeat the widest possible variety of foods,and seek professional advice about supplements.

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