Are Vitamins Good for Us?

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Vitamania - Book Cover

Catherine Price’s Vitamania confronts us health-conscious readers with one of our most deeply embedded cultural beliefs: that vitamins are good for us. We all know, or think we know, that vitamins are central to a healthy diet. We look for them in foods, both natural and processed, and we supplement with pills and powders. An apple a day keeps the doctor away – but how? And if one apple is good, are more apples better? And what about goji berries or spirulina or aloe vera juice, and why does chocolate-puff cereal have more riboflavin than my salad? And what exactly is riboflavin, anyway?

Price’s historical and scientific myth-busting reveals massive cracks in our understanding. With comprehensible prose, accessible even to this creative-writing major who hasn’t taken a science class since high school, Price breaks down the chemistry and biology of what vitamins do in our bodies: basically, enable the metabolic functions that keep us alive. I’ll leave it to her to explain the details.

Vitamania answers many questions, but its significance as a book lies is in how Price then peels them back to uncover a whole mess of other questions swirling around beneath the surface. Most of these questions the majority of us have never even bothered to ask, even those of us, such as diabetics, who have to be conscious of every bite. So deep is our faith in the norms of healthy eating, we rarely pause to wonder the important things, such as who decided what healthy is, how did they figure it out, what exactly do our bodies do with the good things we eat, why do Americans increasingly get sick and obese, and what don’t we know still, after all these decades of research?

Price helps us acknowledge the complexity of our questions about not just vitamins in particular, but diet and nutrition as a whole. She helps us see how we got where we are: a complicated mess of trial and error, scientific discoveries and missteps, politics and market forces. Her historical exploration of the development of nutritional knowledge is as entertaining as it is informative. Some of the early advice from doctors and scientists (and, as often as not, lobbyists) is on par with the old ads about cigarettes being good for your lungs and your unborn child.

For over a century, the American public has begged to know how to eat to stay healthy, strong, and slim. And yet we still aren’t sure how to lose weight, keep it off, avoid heart disease or cancer or the common cold. The debates over which approach is best – low-fat, vegan, carb-free, gluten-free, paleo? – are based on shaky knowledge at best. The challenge of understanding our bodies’ many reactions to all of the nutrients (or lack thereof) in our food is massive. The very difficulty of setting up a scientifically and morally sound study undercuts our ability to really know.

But vitamins are good – we know this, right? We have at least figured this out? Americans in particular put quite a bit of faith in vitamins, with a basic idea of what they’re for – vitamin A helps our vision, vitamin C fights off a cold, and vitamin D… has something to do with sunshine? That’s where most of our understanding ends. But we accept this. We live by our fractured knowledge and believe in it when our energy drinks, cereals, and candy bars are spiked with what is supposed to be beneficial to our health. But the professionals’ knowledge has so many holes and the supplement market is so unregulated that, as Price makes us see, the supplements we take today aren’t all that far from the snake oil sold by itinerant “doctors” in the early 1900s.

Vitamania - Book CoverVitamania isn’t a missive against vitamins, and it isn’t a depressing read, either. Even as someone who is very conscious of my food choices, I found myself challenged and entertained at the same time. Each morning as I popped my gummy supplements and sat down to another chapter, I laughed at my own “healthy” choices. Lots of protein, green vegetables, fish oil, not a lot of white flour, a glass of wine each night – are these scientifically proven approaches or just what the latest fitness guru or lifestyle magazine has decided to sell me? The line, it turns out, is incredibly blurry.

At the end of Price’s book I was left only with a lingering question about the humanity behind her questions and answers. She forces us to face our ungrounded but firm beliefs in nutritional so-called facts. She forces us to admit how little we know about what we put into our bodies, and what a mystery the human body is, no matter how much we think we know – something that is clear to any diabetic whose blood sugar goes wild on a day that is exactly like any other day. Price herself, a type 1 diabetic since her early twenties, seems to want to grab onto something tangible and known, too. But we see little of her personal struggle to get control over food, health, and science. Vitamania is about all of us, and I wish it were also more about Price herself.

Vitamania is available on Amazon.

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