4 Big Nutrition Myths — Busted

With potentially mislabeled supplements over here, and cholesterol recommendations reversed over there, it seems like our ideas of proper nutrition are always in flux — especially when it comes to what each individual person needs. 

Still, there are a few ideas that, unfortunately, just won't go away. So, we talked to Catherine Price, author of Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest For Nutritional Perfection — officially out tomorrow — to tackle some of the most pervasive nutrition misconceptions.

MYTH: You need to get all of your recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) every day.
"We tend to take the RDAs as a kind of personalized prescription for what we should be doing every day. In reality, the RDAs are supposed to be recommendations for the entire population, and they’re not meant to be taken personally at all. They represent the amount of a particular nutrient that’s thought to meet the needs of 97-98% of healthy adults in the entire population, on average. 

"So, that’s really helpful if you’re trying to [make] school lunch plans...or something where you’re in charge of making sure people get adequate nutrients. But, for you and me and every individual, it’s not really that relevant. 

"[It's kind of like if] you have an oversized sweater that would fit 98% of anyone who tried it on. Chances are, you don’t need a sweater that large, but...most people would fit into it. So, [the RDAs] really are too high for most people, because they’re intended to cover so many people. You don’t have to worry about meeting that every day; it’s really more like a long-term average, and it’s not personalized."

MYTH: Synthetic vitamins are still made from natural sources.
"For the most part, they’re not...They’re made from chemical synthesis. For instance, if you want to make a vitamin C extract from an orange, you could, but it’s really expensive. And, vitamin C is used for so many other things (such as preservatives) that you really couldn’t meet the world’s demand for C just with citrus fruit.

"[On the other hand,] B12 is a really interesting example, because it’s really molecularly complicated and would be very difficult to synthesize if you were to do it just chemically...but you can genetically modify bacteria so that the bacteria will make it for you." 
MYTH: The FDA is required to regulate vitamins for safety and effectiveness.
"We often use the word 'vitamin' to refer to dietary supplements, like everything you’d find in a GNC. And, when you go into a drugstore, the supplement aisle will often be labeled 'Vitamins.' But, there are really only 13 vitamins.

"[People] tend to think all of these things are regulated in a way similar to prescription or over-the-counter drugs — [that] someone is making sure they’re safe and effective — and that’s not true. It’s because of a law that was passed in 1994, called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, basically written by the supplement industry. They managed to use the positive connotation of 'vitamins' to convince the public to accept all dietary supplements, and to think of access to them as a 'matter of personal freedom.' The end result is that dietary supplements of all kinds [aren't required] to be tested for safety or efficacy before they're sold. 

"Technically, they are supposed to adhere to good manufacturing practices, meaning a set of regulations they have to follow to ensure that what they say is in the bottle is actually there. The big players do try to abide by that, but there are lots of problems with it. So, you can't always trust that what it says on the label is what's in the bottle."

MYTH: We know everything about nutrition.
"It turns out there’s no chemical definition of a vitamin. They were all lumped together by historical happenstance when they were discovered around the same time. The Polish biochemist Casimir Funk came up with the word "vitamine" before anyone had isolated a vitamin. Now, 104 years later, we’re still calling these things vitamins.

"How much we don’t know about vitamins is really a microcosm of [how much we don't know about] nutrition in general...It’s totally hubristic in general to think we have this stuff figured out. And, it’s not just that we as individual consumers are confused by this stuff — the experts are confused, too. That leaves us vulnerable to fads and susceptible to headlines in the news."
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So, what are we supposed to with all this? Should we give up on supplements entirely? Not necessarily, but we should all take the time to do our own research and check in with our doctors to get the scoop on our own personal situations. And, Price says the best thing we can do is take a step back: "We, the public, should take a deep breath," she says, "and give science time to figure stuff out before we start changing our diets based on headlines." Sounds like solid advice, not just food for thought.
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