This is one of the age old arguments. First of all a definition: vitamins are organic compounds needed in small amounts to ensure health. They cannot be naturally made in the body. Often deficiency in certain vitamins can lead to disease.
Vitamins are found naturally in organic compounds - the plants and meats we eat. Most doctors would say that you can get enough of your vitamins from eating whole foods. The problem is, most of us don't eat enough whole foods to deliver enough vitamins. So decades ago, vitamins began to be produced synthetically, i.e. in pill form. Through a chemical process, vitamins are distilled and extracted from organic compounds, including food sources or in some cases compounds like coal tar, to give us the vitamins you can buy on the shelf. A lot of the foods you eat contain added synthetic vitamins, from breads, to cereals, to clif bars, to health shakes (Shakeology does NOT have synthetic vitamins, more on that later). Since many synthetic vitamins are extracted from real foods and are chemcially identical to natural vitamins, they should interact exactly the same in our body. But some people disagree.
A Telling Study of Lung Cancer
Perhaps the most interesting, and in some ways inconclusive, study of vitamins was conducted in 1994 by the New England Journal of Medicine. Previous studies among smokers had proven that foods rich in vitamin E and vitamin A/beta-carotene helped prevent lung cancer. Oddly, the 1994 study using synthetic vitamin E and beta-carotene led to an INCREASE in lung cancer among smokers versus a control group of smokers without supplementation.
There has never been a definitive study that shows synthetic vitamins can prevent disease, yet there is this one study that seems to prove an increase in probability of getting cancer from taking synthetic vitamins.
Realistically, we shouldn't go around saying synthetic vitamin E causes lung cancer, it was obviously the fact that the subjects were smokers and the study reflected some kind of statistical anomaly.
What it DOES seem to suggest is that there is some other phytochemical in the vitamin E and A rich foods besides, or beyond, these vitamins that is playing a role in reducing cancer. Perhaps there is some unknown way that the vitamins and phytochemicals interact with one another that require us to get them from whole foods for them to do their job.
Left-handed Vitamin E
There are actually two types of vitamin E molecules and biologists use prefixes meaning "right-handed" and "left-handed" to describe each orientation. The body can only absorb the right-handed (abbreviated "d") and cannot utilize the left-handed (abbreviated "L"). Naturally occuring vitamin E is always right-handed, but synthetic is about 50/50 right and left-handed. You'll notice most vitamin supplements have "dl alpha tocopherol," the "dl" meaning both right and left-handed. So, when you take a vitamin E supplement, only about half of it can even be absorbed.
Myths About B Complex
A lot of people take a vitamin B complex to provide energy. While B vitamins are essential in helping our body absorb energy from food, there really is no property of any B vitamin that will "give" you more energy, it is a complete myth. It's like saying oil is needed in order for your car's engine to convert gasoline into energy, so by putting in more oil, my car will go faster.
Strategies for Getting Your Vitamins
Since there isn't a single study that proves synthetic vitamins are necessary, yet there is lots of information, empirical and in studies, that proves vegetables, fruits, and other plant based food have numerous benefits, before popping a multi-vitamin, I suggest getting your vitamins from whole food sources. I suggest having a serving of fruits and/or vegetables at EVERY meal, no matter what. It's really the easiest, most straight forward advice I can give you with your diet.
Now how does something like Beachbody products come into play with this? Well, you should know that when plants are dehydrated and powdered, while they lose their valuable fiber, they DO NOT lose their phytochemical and vitamin profile. In general, excessive heat and over exposure to oxygen is what will cause decay of phytochemicals. So while drinking Shakeology is not the same thing as eating real chia seeds, cordyceps, astragulus root, camu-camu fruit, etc. it DOES give you the huge phytochemical profile you get from these compounds. So when they say it's like eating a giant salad, it's kind of true. As I wrote last week the benefits of vegetables are primarily in the way the phytochemicals and vitamins interact with one another, the added benefit is they keep you full and are low calorie.
You might ask why should I believe Dan, he is a product rep for Beachbody and a coach. Well, I wouldn't be if I didn't USE and BELIEVE in this product, Shakeology. It's obviously one of the faces of the company, in addition to P90X. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't use it daily and put the product to the test of my knowledge of nutrition.
So, using the argument of natural vs. synthetic vitamins, I reiterate: the two biggest tips I can give you to get your nutrition in line are 1) Eat vegetables and/or fruits at every meal, and 2) Have one Shakeology a day. You will not only help yourself lose weight, you will also be potentially preventing disease later in life.