Jerry Garcia's doctor says vitamins can never take the place of a good diet.
The last Wellness column, which was about anemia, ended with the advice to “try a multivitamin and eat more kale.” A week spent wandering the aisles of the local health stores and a phone interview with Jerry Garcia’s former physician convinced me that this easily-dispensed advice is more crucial than ever—but useless if not followed with care.
The Harvard School of Public Policy calls multivitamins a “nutrition insurance policy,” and according to Dr. Randy Baker of the Soquel-based Pacific Center for Integral Health, this couldn’t be more true—not just for “unhealthy” people, but for everybody. That being said, even the highest quality multivitamin cannot take the place of kale. Ever.
“There’s absolutely no substitute for a healthy diet,” says Baker (who, since you’re probably wondering, tended the Grateful Dead frontman from 1990 to his death of a heart attack in 1995).
The problem is, our kale may not be quite as healthy as we think it is: soil is becoming more and more depleted of nutrients like chromium, selenium and magnesium, and mineral deficiencies are even more common than vitamin deficiencies, says Baker. He adds that the consequences of mineral deficiencies are more grave than simply feeling tired and washed out.
“Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause virtually any symptom in the world and can increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers,” says Baker, who names magnesium deficiency as the leading mineral deficiency in the United States. “Someone suffering from magnesium deficiency could go to a doctor and be given an asthma inhaler, drugs for migraines, blood pressure meds, laxatives, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers and sleeping pills when all they really needed was magnesium.”
In other words, a multivitamin. And when it comes to multivitamins, there are two kinds: the less expensive “isolates,” which have been synthetically produced from chemicals in the lab; and the more expensive food-based vitamins, often grown on a yeast-based culture, like Vitamin Code Raw One, which retails for $36.95 for 75 tablets at New Leaf.
The number one criticism of multivitamins is that all they do is make expensive, fluorescent urine (vitamins B1 and B2 are the culprits), but many nutritionists think that food-based vitamins are much more available to the body because they contain naturally-occurring chemical co-factors that help absorption.
“It’s kind of like the isolates have to find a lot of other things in your bloodstream to make them metabolically active, and that can be taxing to your body,” says Mary Iliff, an expert in the vitamin aisle of New Leaf Community Markets on the Westside.
For multivitamins, Baker recommends food-based Rainbow Light or Source Naturals, both of which are based in Santa Cruz County. He’s less of a fan of isolates like Centrum or One-a-Day because they contain lower amounts of vitamins in the least expensive forms. Synthetically produced Vitamin E, for example, has been shown to have potential health hazards.
“You often have to read the fine print. Even if a vitamin says ‘all natural’ it may contain synthetic vitamin E,” says Baker. (Natural vitamin E appears as “d-alpha tocopheryl,” while synthetic vitamin E appears as “dl-alpha tocopheryl.”)
Baker also highly recommends green superfood powders like Green Vibrance, which retail for $1.45 per single serving packet at the Herb Room and Staff of Life, and climbs to around $65 for a 60-day supply. Complete with spirulina, wheat grass and probiotics, these green powders are highy concentrated, made from juiced and freeze-dried plants.
“If I was going to choose one over the other I might actually recommend the superfood powder over multivitamins,” says Baker.
And yes, Baker did ask Jerry Garcia to take multivitamins. “And he did take them some of the time,” laughs Baker. “I believe when he followed my advice he did really very well, and unfortunately he did not always follow my advice.”