Vitamin supplements almost never have health benefits, are a waste of money and could even be harmful, a group of scientists said in a stunning indictment of a good portion of the natural health industry.
Evidence from two studies of almost 500,000 people suggests that well nourished adults who supplemented their diet with vitamins can expect “absolutely no clear benefits” from them and that the practice may even be harmful.
That declaration comes in a strongly worded editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine, supported by conclusions of British and US academics at the University of Warwick and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Adding fuel to the media frenzy is the claim that companies selling supplements were propagating false health anxieties in offering unnecessary cures, according to the Times.
“What we’ve found time and again is that the supplements are not working… we don’t need to go on studying them forever,” said editorial writer Eliseo Guallar of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”
Three research papers helped form expert opinion, one of which, analysing 24 previous trials involving 450,000 people, and found no beneficial effect on mortality from taking vitamins.
Another examined 6,000 elderly men and found no improvement on cognitive decline after 12 years of taking supplements, while a third saw no advantage of supplements among 1,700 men and women with heart problems over an average study of five years.
This led experts to draw a strong conclusion most supplements should be avoided as their use is not justified. “Case closed,” was the final indictment, as the average western diet is sufficient to provide the vitamins the body needs.
Edgar Miller, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine stated: “There are some that advocate we have many nutritional deficiencies in our diet. The truth is though we are in general overfed, our diet is completely adequate.”
Mr. Miller firmly believes that companies are marketing products to us based on an illogical perception of food being generally unhealthy, and that they can help us make up for these deficiencies and stop chronic illnesses. He believes that people who need vitamins belong in a tiny segment of society.
He continued: “There’s something for everything: preventing joint pains, stopping heart disease. If you’re going to spend your money on something every month, is this really the best option?”
What the studies really indicate!
Not everyone agrees. Michael Gaziano, a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the VA Boston Healthcare System actually co-authored one of the new studies.
He said, “It drives me crazy that they say ‘enough is enough,’ when there’s only been one large study of (standard) multivitamins and it’s ours,” he says.
This of course is true. One thing to remember when we see studies proving anything conclusively is that other studies offer reassurance to the contrary. (Mursu J, Robien K, Harnack LJ, Park K, Jacobs DR, Jr. Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women: The Iowa Women’s Health Study. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171:1625-33).
We know conclusively that we need certain amounts of vitamin C to prevent scurvy, B1 to prevent beri-beri, B3 for pellagra and vitamin D for rickets. But these are the minimum requirements and ongoing research suggests a much larger role for vitamins.
According to Dr. Hyman, “work by Dr. Bruce N. Ames of the University of California, Berkeley, and others shows that deficiencies in many micronutrients can lead to DNA damage, causing or accelerating age-related conditions. This would indeed make chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease, vision loss, and a host of others a new type of deficiency disease.”
Is the North American diet sufficient in nutrients?
One of the more audacious statements made by experts is that we in North America are generally “overfed”, suggesting we thrive on an abundance of nutrient rich foods. If that were only true. How many people eat enough vegetables daily? How many get their quota of fibre, quality fats (rather than rancid versions), whole grains rather than the lie of whole wheat, pastured beef rather than sickly animals housed in crowded feedlots, overfed on grain and pumped full of antibiotics, steroids, hormones and every other chemical concoction one can imagine?
How many consume dairy which is similarly affected – chickens, farmed fish, chemicalized and refined foods, not to mention the fast food industry which doesn’t give one hoot for our safety and which throws 3 burgers at you for 5 bucks. They’re affordable and they make you fat, so yes, judging by bulbous bellies and waistlines, we’re overfed. But if you think these types of foods are safe, you not only naive, but grossly ignorant of facts and statistics.
Here in Canada, 8 out of 10 die of a disease during their lifetime, according to collective statistics via Health Canada. The United Sates is no better and may be worse. Does any of this support the notion that we are overfed and generally get the nutrients we need? Or does it suggest that we are eating a lot but may be grossly nutrient deficient because of low quality foods, through the pillaging of the soil via greedy agricultural practices. This is compounded by food manufactures who take every opportunity to skirt health inspections and add unsavory (and cost efficient) chemicals, additives and unhealthy oils to our foods to preserve them?
The advice of experts stating that additional dietary vitamins are unnecessary flies in the face of an overwhelming body of research. They ignore the proven science that nutritional supplements can have significant impact in disease prevention and health promotion.
Dr. Hyman asserts that extensive literature reviews in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine support this view, and that a plethora of experimental controlled studies — which are the gold standard for proving cause and effect — over the last few years found positive outcomes in many diseases.
Most vitamin studies are flawed
Most studies that show harm are often designed like drugs studies, where high doses of singular nutrients are used to study outcomes. Of course, this can lead to negative outcomes as they are not supported by a broad spectrum of other nutrients not only necessary for proper absorption, but also utilization. Studying one particular nutrient for an outcome is simply failing to take into account a complex biological system where all nutrients work as a team to support your biochemical processes.
In conclusion, we should also address comparisons between vitamins and drugs. It’s a proven fact that over 100,000 people die every year from properly prescribed medication in hospitals. Add to that mistakes made through clinics and family physicians and you end up with a CDC report that showed in 2009, the annual number of deaths caused by improper/overprescribing use of medicines is higher than all deaths by motor vehicles and firearms combined.
Yet here we are in 2013 and medicinal drug use is rampant to the point of many elderly people using them to the point of abuse. Do they all have the desired outcomes envisioned by doctors? Of course not!
“Prescription drugs taken as prescribed in hospitals are the fourth leading cause of death in the US and Canada, after cancer, heart disease and strokes. They cause about 10,000 deaths a year in Canada and about 106,000 deaths a year and over two million serious injuries in the US. As many as another 10,000 deaths a year in Canada are thought to occur outside hospitals due to the wrong drug, dosage errors and adverse reactions. One out of four admissions to internal medicine in Canadian hospitals is related to prescription drugs, of which 70% are preventable. Canadians now spend more on prescription drugs ($24 billion) than we do on doctors ($18 billion).
All drugs cause adverse effects. The only difference between a drug and a poison is dosage. Many drugs are marketed at dosages that are risky for many patients, referred to as a narrow therapeutic index. Sixteen major drugs have been pulled off the North American market since 1997 for injuring or killing patients including the drug that killed Vanessa Young – Prepulsid. Vioxx alone may have killed 55,000-65,000 patients before being withdrawn by the manufacturer, Merck, in 2004.” (CommonGround.ca)
Imagine now if one solitary account of multivitamin death occurred because of prescribed dosage. Surely this would trigger a massive recall of most related supplements, along with a large scale investigation and subsequent “drug” label on these products. The required research would now be so costly that it would make it almost impossible for anyone but pharmaceutical companies to undertake this venture.
Pharmaceuticals are big money and natural health products threaten their viability. They work, make no mistake, so studies undermining their usefulness tend to chip away at their “useful” veneer until eventually lawmakers will feel compelled to intervene on our behalf and regulate the process.
So while it is grandiosely stated that vitamins may not only be a waste of money but may also be dangerous for us, we should take such advice with a grain of salt, as few dangerous interactions have been reported. The truth on pharmaceuticals is a different story.
“Pharmaceutical companies are not required to report adverse reactions to their drugs using worldwide totals and only report the injuries and deaths that occur in each jurisdiction, a much smaller number. Safety information is viewed as “commercial secrets.” This makes it impossible for regulators to determine how dangerous the drugs truly are. Additionally, the information Health Canada analyzes to review/approve new drugs is kept secret, preventing independent researchers from reviewing it or challenging it. Health Canada also does not routinely investigate why drugs kill patients. It tracks the adverse drug reaction reports on their website. That’s like a police officer filling out crime reports and never investigating them. ” (CommonGround.ca)
So when we analyze superficial media driven studies, we must take into account all facts, not what is presented on the surface, and what is surely driven by grants from pharmaceutical companies sure to profit by our reluctance to put away prescription drugs over the addition of supplements.
In a best case circumstance, a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, good proteins and healthy fats should provide most of the nutrients needed for good health. But even so, we don’t know exactly how much or what has been added to our food, what has been taken away, how the ground was treated or if the crops were properly rotated. All these things affect nutrient composition in food.
As well, not everyone eats a healthy diet. If that was the case, we should see few people being ill or overweight.
Knowledge about the optimal intakes of vitamins and minerals is not set in stone. In fact, much of what was recommended in the past has been updated to reflect more recent studies. But I should also mention that I think the concept of multivitamins in itself is flawed. There is nothing in a purely natural diet of unprocessed foods (supplemented by whole food nutritionals such as green powders, healthy fats and so on) that is equivalent to multivitamins.
Vitamins that are absorbed through the kinds of food available to us prior to the advent of modern food processing technology, and are done so in the presence of all sorts of things that are just not found in multivitamins, eg certain natural enzymes found in fresh food of the organic variety.
There are optimum conditions in which vitamins can be absorbed. These conditions are typically found in natural sources of vitamins. Trying to cram as many vitamins into the body as possible in one go is a rather blunt and naive approach.
The conditions that favour the absorption of one nutrient can be contraindicated for another nutrient. I believe that it makes more sense to take an increasingly holistic view when supplementing your diet, including not smoking, eating well, getting adequate exercise and supplementing with whole food supplements.
And it is for these reasons that these studies are flawed and give a misleading impression of food supplements. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.