The magic pill: Cheating nutrition?

| Staff Columnist
Erin Mitchell | Student Life

I’ve always thought of dietary supplements as a form of softcore cheating, like consulting SparkNotes after reading a book, just to confirm the major plot points. It’s not exactly wrong, but it wouldn’t be necessary if you had done everything right the first time around: if you had eaten a healthy diet or read the book carefully. There’s no information on the SparkNotes website that you can’t find in the actual pages of the book if you look hard enough, and there is nothing in the supplements that you can’t get from eating real food.

Or so I thought.

That’s why I never worried too much about forgetting to take a multivitamin and scoffed at my mom when she went on a health kick a few years ago and started taking these nasty-smelling omega-3 fish oil pills. I figured they were just plain unnecessary.

Then my mom came home one day over my spring break with a bottle of vitamin D supplements and said that her doctor had told her to start taking them. At first skeptical, I realized that vitamin D deficiencies are apparently much more common than expected, affecting at least two-thirds of American adults. Who knew?

After that, I started seeing claims about vitamin D everywhere. It suddenly seemed crucial to survival, according to all the bold declarations plastered across magazines, newspapers and food packaging. It prevents osteoporosis. It reduces the risk of cancer. It improves cardiac strength. It keeps rheumatoid arthritis at bay. It’s especially important for adolescent girls. And boys. Old people. Women. Blacks. Whites. Jews. Redheads.

Or something along those lines.

Having just endured six months of horrendous St. Louis weather, I assumed the prevalence of deficiencies was because everyone had spent the winter holed up inside, deprived of the sunlight that generates vitamin D production upon direct contact with skin. The problem goes deeper, however, in part because there are very few foods that can provide a significant amount of vitamin D. In fact, it is almost impossible to get even minimal amounts of the vitamin from diet alone, regardless of how healthy and balanced one’s eating habits may be.

So I realized that you can do everything right (or at least close to right) and still fall short. That you can eat your way up and down the FDA-recommended food pyramid and still miss out. That we, as college students, who presumably eat more tater tots and mozzarella sticks than vitamin-rich veggies, are probably further behind than most people. That subsisting on Easy Mac and yogurt pretzels for days at a time might be an unfortunate consequence of the college lifestyle. That diseases like osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis and heart failure sound far away but may actually be closer than we think.

That we don’t always eat the way we should. That we can’t always finish the book in time for class on Monday morning.

That taking a supplement is not cheating, nor is it admitting defeat. That we just have to do the best we can.

That sometimes it’s OK to check SparkNotes and sometimes it’s okay to pop a pill with breakfast. Assuming you eat breakfast.

If not, then lunch is just fine too.

Kate is a freshman in Art and Sciences, she can be reached at kmarcal@wustl.edu.