A lot of people I know pop a multivitamin everyday because they believe it will prevent all kinds of ailments. The truth is a tougher pill to swallow: The pills may not help that much. In 2005, a National Institutes of Health-sponsored panel  found little evidence that multivitamin pills reduce your risk of getting cancer and heart disease. In fact, they found that Vitamin A increased the risk of developing lung cancer in smokers.

Don’t get me wrong. Some vitamin pills absolutely work. Women’s prenatal folic acid supplements prevent defects in babies; Vitamin D, taken with calcium, reduce bone loss and fractures in women; and a combination of vitamins C and E, B-carotene, and zinc slow the progression of age-related macular degeneration. Keep taking your daily multivitamin. As Harvard researcher Walter Willett says, a daily multivitamin is insurance for any kind of diet.

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The point is a multivitamin is no substitute for a poor diet. Unlike the multivitamin, there is something that prolongs life and decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. What is it? A plant-based diet. This is what a 2009 report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded after reviewing studies of vegetarians. The Mediterranean diet (defined largely by what people in the Greek island Crete and southern Italy ate) of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains (plus dairy, fish, and wine) lowers the risk of these diseases and increases longevity, too.

So why do plant-based diets improve our health while multivitamins do not? Both have the same good things and little of the bad things, after all. The difference lies in the hundreds of molecules in various foods that are not in multivitamins, many of which have not been discovered, that work synergistically to get vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants into the right places in our bodies.

Studies show our bodies are better able to absorb and use beneficial molecules when introduced in a natural form versus an artificial form. The other stuff in an orange helps Vitamin C get though your gastrointestinal tract, into your bloodstream, and inside your cells. The same is true for the other stuff in tomatoes and the antioxidant lycopene, blueberries, and anthocyanin antioxidants and omega fatty acids and salmon. It is as if molecules in nature were designed to cooperate with each other to help human beings get the most out of the good stuff they eat.

This same phenomenon plays out in Indian food. In 2005, the Lancet reported that India had a much lower rate of Alzheimer’s Disease than other developed nations.  Some rates of cancer are lower, too.  Bharat Aggarwal, a medical doctor at Anderson Cancer Center researcher in Houston, says, “The combined rate of the four most common cancers in the United States—lung, prostate, breast, and colon—is at least 10 times lower in India, where curry is a staple in the diet.”

Many experts believe the secret is in curry powder, a mix of spices containing cumin, coriander, fenugreek, ginger, mustard seed, black pepper, and other spices depending on where you’re from. It also contains turmeric (haldi in Hindi), which has gotten lots of attention. This is because curcumin, a molecule in turmeric powder, has been found to be a strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent that fights  cancer and dementia.

But while researchers know curcumin fights these diseases, they have had difficulty getting good results in people taking curcumin by itself. When taken in pill form, curcumin does not last long inside the body. It is increasingly believed that the health benefits of curcumin are best achieved when turmeric is taken together with other spices. In other words, through curry powder.

This power of synergy between various spices, observed by generations of Ayruvedic practitioners experimenting with natural sources of medicine is being observed again using the modern scientific method. In Anticancer: A New Way of Life, author and medical doctor David Servan-Schreiber spotlights one example of this in a study that found  curcumin levels to be barely present when ingested alone, but when piperine, a component of black pepper, is given with curcumin, about 2,000 percent more curcumin is present in the blood.

Thus, the low rates of Alzheimer’s dementia and lung and colon cancers among Indians are not due to turmeric itself, but to the way turmeric is blended with other spices. The natural synergy between molecules in healthy diets gives far more benefits than the nonsynergy of molecules in a pill. Eating certain foods together daily, whether it is our favorite curry dishes or the nuts, grains, and plant foods in the Mediterranean diet, gets a lot of the good stuff inside your body and keeps it there longer. That’s food for thought for the next time you pop a multivitamin and reach for something less than healthy to eat.

Raj R. Patel is a medical resident in Houston who writes on heart disease, diabetes, prevention. and healthy living. Find out more at rajrpatelmd.com.

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