Do we really need a cupboard full of vitamins and supplements to be healthy?

Take a look at any pharmacy or grocery store and there is a section loaded with colourful bottles of vitamins, minerals and food additives. And it is a growing industry.

To be sure of that perfect nutritional intake, many people take vitamins every day. Why? Because we have been educated to believe that it is a good idea.

However, new studies question that assumption. In fact, taking a vitamin every day may not be just a waste of money, but can create health hazards. In an article in the National Post last week, Tom Blackwell looks at the history of our love affair with the mighty vitamin. He makes the distinction between those situations in which it may be helpful for health and our tendency to overuse them. He writes:

“..our love affair with vitamins seems built on something more: the notion that adding to our minimum required intake will lead to added benefits — including everything from mood enhancement to longevity.”

Karen Bartlett, a young professional, agrees. Having been sucked into buying expensive health products, food regimens and supplement fads for years, she said, “I used to have a cupboard stuffed full of vitamins, food supplements and minerals. I used them for a week or two and then forgot about them, or moved onto a new one.

Bartlett began to really question what she was doing about two years ago.  She told me, “I realized that I was depending on what other people were telling me – or selling me – about what health is and how to attain it, and I was buying into that. I was not thinking independently. In fact, the more research and reading I did on the subject, the more confused and fearful I became about what I was eating. And then, tired of it all, I would binge on all kinds of inappropriate foods.”

“I realized that I had become so focused on my search for the perfect diet that I had neglected to consider that my life and health is more than the food that I put in my body or how many miles I run every day.”

That’s when Bartlett began her spiritual practice of prayer. She decided not to do any research on the internet on the best type of spiritual practice for her health. Nor did she want to think of this practice as yet another additive to her life that she needed to fit in, or that ended up in the cupboard with all those vitamins. She wanted it to be a staple to her life, changing her from the inside out, and nourishing her spirit.

Bartlett talked with the rector of a local church. These discussions helped her also realize just how self–focused she had become in her fixation on diet and supplements as a path to health.

She became interested in what both the Christian and Jewish traditions teach about food in the Bible. She discovered a rich history of how some people refuted the commonly believed  laws of the day about food and discovered inspiring truths about what really nourishes their health.

One day she saw a cartoon of the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand with some loaves and fishes. Bartlett laughed, seeing herself in the cartoon as part of an anxious crowd who were  asking, “Is the bread gluten-free?” “I am allergic to fish, do you have anything else?” “Is this a properly balanced meal or do I need vitamins?”

She thought deeply about Jesus’ teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, where he admonishes his followers:

“Take no thought saying ‘what shall we eat, or what shall we drink?’…but seek ye first the kingdom of God.”

She didn’t think he meant for us to be careless about what we imbibe, but rather, to not become fixated on it. To Bartlett, seeking the kingdom of heaven was finding that stable unmoving union with the divine as an essential component to health and happiness.

Gradually, as her Bible study and prayer practice progressed in this direction, her anxiety receded. She cooked and ate sensibly, without fussing about it. Life was simpler. To her surprise, she found that she was healthier than she had been when taking all the vitamins and food additives. She had fewer colds and visited her doctor less.

However, Bartlett feels her greatest reward was in becoming more aware of those really in need of food around her. She began volunteering at a local food bank and homeless shelter that offered meals. In caring for others’ needs she discovered qualities within her she had not noticed before – unselfishness, compassion, generosity and gentleness.

We can each be more alert to not buying into the belief  that we can only be happier or healthier if we eat this or that food or take certain vitamins. Like Bartlett, many people have discovered that their lives are not so much dependent on the perfectly balanced diet, but rather on the spiritual ideas they are nurturing every day.

I am quite certain that Nelson Mandela would not have had a perfect diet and vitamins during the 24 years he was in prison on Robbin Island. Mandela could have fed and nurtured his anger, fear and victimhood, and worried endlessly about his poor diet. Instead he chose to nourish his love for his country through prayer and study of the Bible. He ended up living a very long life and blessing an entire country.

In the confusing world of nutrition it’s easy for our health needs to become complicated, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Rather than worrying about food, or searching for the perfect vitamin or food additive to balance our diet, we can discover that what is truly health giving is not so much what we put into our mouths, as what we learn about the divine nature already within us.