A friend asked recently why I don’t give my children vitamin pills. The easiest answer is that I reject the magical properties people ascribe to foods—a corollary of the belief system Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism.” I take with many grains of salt every claim that one food can cure you or another cause you deadly harm (poisons and allergens excluded, naturally). And my default skepticism has a basis in fact—most of these claims are either unsupported or even debunked by reputable research.
Parents are especially credulous about food’s magical properties because we already feel anxious about feeding our kids. We make most, if not all, food and health choices for our young children: the pressure of that constant decision-making, plus our primal drive to ensure they survive and thrive, creates a potent stew of emotions that makes parents particularly vulnerable both to this kind of thinking and to those who exploit it. We can feel like we are going around in circles trying to decipher what is (or isn’t) “healthy” for our children, and there are companies waiting to make money off our uncertainty lurking around every corner.
I grew up taking a daily multi-vitamin. It was called something like “A to Z Every Day.” I was fascinated by the fact that one pill could contain so many different vitamins and minerals, arranged alphabetically down the side of the bottle in tiny letters. I and my family felt we were doing something essential and responsible by taking those horse pills. They weren’t sexy, though, and as a child I didn’t give a damn about vitamins’ anti-aging or disease-preventing properties. Taking them just felt dutiful, like brushing my teeth.
The only other vitamins we took regularly were large doses of Vitamin C, and these were exciting. My mouth still waters at the memory of those fantastically sweet and sour pills called Acerolas; they came in huge tubs and we gobbled them like candy whenever we got our hands on a stash. Acerolas did feel magical, and not only because they were addictively delicious. I first heard of the double Nobelist Linus Pauling around this time because he claimed large doses of C could ward off the common cold. This seemed to me a brilliant justification for gorging on Acerolas. Little did I know then that his legacy would be irreparably tarnished by this belief, as well as his fabulist anti-cancer claims, all later disproven by multiple studies.
It takes only a little digging to reveal the debate that’s been raging for decades about the value of supplements, and about vitamins in particular. It’s not my place to weigh in on that, although I’d suggest looking carefully at which studies are funded by the supplement industry. I’m more concerned with exposing how parents are exploited in the name of looking out for our children’s health.
A recent, fascinating book speaks to my personal anti-vitamin, anti-supplement stance. Spring Chicken is about the American obsession with preventing aging; the chapter that resonated most with me describes the various quack medicines and tonics that were once sold to combat age. One celebrated nineteenth-century doctor injected himself with a homemade potion of semen and other hormonal substances; he garnered an enormous amount of publicity and inspired many copycats, despite having no measurable health improvements (other than a temporary, placebo one). It suddenly clicked that all those rows of vitamin and supplement bottles at the drugstore, lined up alongside the aspirin and decongestants, are the quack tonics of today. A recent investigation revealed that supplements made and sold by several huge national chains contained little to none of what they were supposed to, but instead fillers like grass clippings, rice, and houseplants. Whether or not echinacea or zinc truly prevents a cold is one question, and you can read up on the studies; but if the “zinc” pill you take is actually beans and ferns, how would you even know?
Supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration under completely different rules from food or medicines: in brief, supplement manufacturers are expected to act on the honor system. This is why they are generally considered to be unregulated, despite the industry’s claims to the contrary. Politicians, most notably Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, receive enormous amounts of money and favors from supplement manufacturers to make sure their industry remains unregulated. Why would I trust these people with my children’s health? And how can parents continue to think supplements are “healthy” for their kids when we don’t even have any idea what’s really in them?
Even doctors’ reflexive advice to give kids vitamin supplements rubs me the wrong way. My older daughter was born in Southern California, where her pediatrician recommended Vitamin D supplements, per the American Academy of Pediatrics. But we lived in a place where it’s an active struggle to keep your child out of the constant sunlight. Surely my baby was making enough natural Vitamin D without our having to feed her a supplement? And indeed, the recommendations are more or less unnecessary in places where it’s usually sunny (and you don’t have to risk skin cancer to get enough Vitamin D—mild sun exposure will do it). Not to mention that rickets, the horrible D-deficiency disease common among malnourished slum children, was a non-issue in our doctor’s Santa Monica practice. But we were made to feel like bad parents—and bad patients—for questioning her recommendation to supplement.
Another issue is that some parents use supplements and vitamins as a hedge against a not-so-great diet: “It’s ok to eat fast food for every meal as long as you take a multi-vitamin.” It can also be dangerous for kids to confuse supplements with candy—which is especially tricky if they take gummy vitamins. An overdose of vitamins can be extremely dangerous for a child, and many supplements aren’t even tested on children. But because they are advertised as “natural,” people aren’t aware of their dangers.
Here’s the unvarnished advice of actual medical experts, rather than the people who have a buck to make by selling you something: feed your kids a varied diet of whole foods and you won’t need supplements. Only children with underlying medical problems, those with artificially restricted diets (like vegans), or those who eat primarily processed foods are at risk for vitamin deficiencies. The first condition is not in parents’ control, but the last two generally are. Parents should make an informed decision that’s right for their children, not accept a one-size-fits-all rule made by companies and agencies whose goals are profits and plausible deniability. And we should also resist the belief that any supplement or ingredient we consume can have magical properties of any kind, either positive or negative. When we believe that, we risk abandoning moderation, which may be unsexy and unprofitable, but is only proven way to have a healthy relationship with what we eat. For your children’s sake, if not your own, isn’t it time to get off the supplement merry-go-round?