The Vitamin Controversy

by Dr. Jonny Bowden · 20 comments

The thing about “spin” is that we expect it from politicians. We don’t expect it from science writers. Yet more often than not, spin is exactly what we get from them, especially when they’re writing about vitamins.

A recent article in Slate Magazine (entitled “The Vita Myth: Do Supplements Really Do Any Good?”) is a perfect case in point.

But before we get into that- and we will- it’s important to explain a few basic notions about research.

Non-scientists tend to think that scientific research is “objective” and that results are clear and unequivocal. After all, it’s science, for goodness sake. It’s supposed to be free of opinion or bias. We have images of dedicated men and women in white lab coats laboring with test tubes in the hallowed halls of academia trying to find a cure for cancer, or acne, or working tirelessly to discover the molecular actions of vitamin B12.

But the truth- as always- is just a bit more complicated.

See, facts are neutral. There are zillions of them. What makes a difference is how you organize them, which ones you choose to report, which ones you imagine are important (and which ones you think are insignificant). And of course, what experts you interview to bolster your story. ‘

Which brings us to the Slate Magazine article, which basically concluded that vitamins are worthless.

“During the past few years, study after study has raised doubts about what, if any, good vitamins actually do a body”, writes Emily Anthes, adding ominously, “They could even pose some real medical risks”

Well, sure. They could. But do they?  In the US in the year 2004, 62,562 reports of vitamin pill “overdose” were reported to poison control centers, 80% of them in children under the age of 6 with another 7,000 plus in older children. This led to exactly 1 death. Compare this to the 19,250 people who died that same year from unintentional poisoning from sources other than vitamins. Or to the over 106,000 who die yearly from adverse reactions to properly prescribed medications. Or the 1.6 million people who are hospitalized in a typical year for side effects of prescribed drugs. Or the 2,216,000 hospital patients experiencing serious adverse drug reactions in one year alone, (according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association). Or the 16,500 Americans who die from bleeding stomach ulcers brought on by common over-the-counter meds known as NSAIDs.

Our Slate Magazine crack science writer goes on to mention a recent study showing that “one-a-day” type multiples did not prevent cancer, heart attacks or strokes. Here’s what she doesn’t mention:

  • A 2009 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology showing that supplementation with multivitamins was associated with reductions in cardiovascular disease mortality.
  • A study from Bastyr University showing that long-term use of multivitamins, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and chromium were significantly associated with lower levels of weight gain in obese patients.
  • A Swedish study showing that children who started taking multivitamins before or at the age of 4 were found to have a decreased risk of sensitization to food allergens.
  • A Harvard study of 88,000 women showing that those who took multivitamins with folic-acid for more than 15 years were 75% less likely to have colon cancer.
  • A comprehensive report released by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) found that ongoing use of multivitamins (preferably with minerals) and other single-nutrient supplements (like calcium or folic acid) demonstrated quantifiable positive impact in areas ranging from strengthening the immune system of highly-vulnerable elderly patients, to drastically reducing the risk of neural tube birth defects such as spina bifida.

She also doesn’t bother to mention a landmark 2002 article in the conservative Journal of The American Medical Association. In case you happened to miss it, let me quote the authors, Robert H. Fletcher, MD, MSc and Kathleen M. Fairfield, MD, DrPH, both affiliated with Harvard Medical School:

“Suboptimal folic acid levels, along with suboptimal levels of vitamins B6 and B12, are a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, neural tube defects, and colon and breast cancer; low levels of vitamin D contribute to osteopenia and fractures; and low levels of the antioxidant vitamins (vitamins A,E, and C) may increase risk for several chronic diseases. Most people do not consume an optimal amount of all vitamins by diet alone … it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements”

As Larry King likes to say, “I’m just getting’ started!”..

Look, I could go on and on about the proven benefits of specific nutrients. Books have been written about what omega-3 fats do for our brains and our hearts. Vitamin D impacts cancer, physical performance, mood, and even weight loss. Resveratrol has been shown to improve insulin resistance and slow the development of certain lines of cancer cells and tumors. Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects. Low selenium status is associated with cognitive decline in the elderly. An extensive review of vitamin C and its potential health effects in the prestigious Journal of the American College of Nutrition concluded that higher than RDA levels of vitamin C have been associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

The fact remains that at the cellular level vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients perform valuable- and documented- functions that are essential to human health. Most of us don’t get optimal levels of all the important nutrients.

And while popping vitamin pills is no substitute for eating a terrific diet, who says you can’t do both?

Taking clinically relevant doses of important nutrients on a daily basis continues to make sense to me. It may not be the only reason I’m in such good health, but I like to think that taking high-quality supplements plays a significant part in my well-being.

Until someone convinces me it doesn’t, I’m going to keep right on doing it.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane R.

Thank you, Jonny, for this article about the vitamins. I have been an advocate for supplements for years and get so tired of my medical doctors telling me I am wasting my money. I refuse to take the many medications that the doctors try to push on the elderly. . .I’m 66 soon to be 67 in the spring. . . and still work full time. I will continue to keep taking supplements as long as our government don’t knuckle under to the pressure from big Pharma and outlaw them! Please keep up the good work!

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Jennifer Eloff

Happy you debunked that (vitamin/mineral junkie here). :-)

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Kalia

Thanks for the articluate and interesting rebuttal of the blanket condemnation of vitamin supplements. It is a complex subject and we are learning more about the pros and cons every day. Moderation is always wise and that applies to supplementation in most instances. (There are exceptions: For example, Sloan Kettering and other cancer treatment facilities often put their patients on 30,000 units of vitamin D for a week to get their blood levels up and then have them take a much reduced but still substantial daily dose.) Keep us posted as the news develops in this area.

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Patrick Lynch

Thanks for the article. I know vitamin supplements and supplements alone improve health from personal experience. If people want to say supplements are bad, then they should know that ever prescription drug, the idea for it came from nature. And if this is so then why is it supplements are always the bad guy. People need to open their eyes and read a few a books, do their own research and not rely solely on the word of someone else, especially from the article you, Jonny just proved wrong.

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Christina

I’ve been a Registered Nurse 10 years + and I don’t see my patients getting better. Modern Medicine just “masks” the problem and does not deal with the root of the actual issue. Normal course of treatment is either cut it out or give a pill. I’ve taken care of elderly patients before who are on 20+ prescription meds. How can that be healthy for the body? It’s no wonder the elderly get confused confused and are so sick, yet Dr’s keep pushing pill after pill. I’ll stick to my whole food vitamins, fish oil, vitamin D and probiotics anyday over the poisin thats prescribe to the general public

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Jen

Christina: I am also a registered nurse and I totally agree with you. I see elderly patients with 20-30 meds when they can barely swallow. I don’t doubt that some of their misery is from the prescription drugs thy are taking. When I was on a statin I could barely get out of bed in the morning. I decided to lose 25 pounds instead and have more energy than ever before at age 59.

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Carole

This debate has gone on forever. The FDAQ has had it out for vitamins as long as I can remember – and I’m getting pretty old!

Vitamins helped me stop monthly migraines when I was a teenager.

Vitamins have kept my daughter from getting sick this winter. I recommended my pracatices to a friend who’s daughter was sick all of the time, and she sailed though her senior year with not one sick day!

But – for most people, vitamins by themselves don’t work. So there is some truth to the ‘dark side.’

Taking vitamins in conjunction with a relatively healthy balanced diet works.

They’re called supplements for a reason.
.-= Carole´s last blog ..Julia and Julia

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andrew zubriczky

Right on Jonny!

It appears that some health writers like some health Dr’s actually believe their own advice. That their ‘words’ are the truth!

No, they are not!

Words are only the truth if they are the truth. We know the truth, even when we are being bamboozled by bureaucratic buffoonery!

Beware of Government and Corporate health propaganda; and the army of health writers, dietitians, researchers, scientists, doctors, nutritionists, and all the other calorie counters out there that have a vested interest, or, a financial interest to promote; especially one, that does not include-your good health!

Keep saying it as it is Jonny, your message is getting out there, loud and clear!

Thanks,

andrew

See the difference?

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Zai

What a reassuring articles. I am slowly researching the use of vitamins/supplements in handling my body processes. Great to read your list of scientific evidence. Furthermore, the foods that we eat nowadays just don’t contain the requisite stuff anymore. Thus supplementation is important, in fact, necessary in these times where natural resources are depleted. We may fill stuffed after a meal, but are we stuffed with all the good stuff that our body needs? Highly unlikely unless we are consuming the right vits/minerals.

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george

Loved the article/ mentioned in another magazine and how they use their own facts……Latest bs is the cover of Readers Digest. This author is noted for her biased opinions, and then we have all the adds from big “pharma” throughout the magazine…..follow the money !
It was a real shame finding this in Readers Digest though.

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Just ME in T

Great article thanks very much.

I have blogged about the demise of RD – reckon it should come soon if they keep up publishing rubbish like this.

http://just-me-in-t.blogspot.com/2010/04/obituary.html

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Audio Power Amplifier

Took me time to read all of the comments, but I really loved the post. It proved to be really useful to me and I’m certain to all of the commenters here! It’s usually nice when you cannot only be informed, but additionally engaged! I am sure you had joy writing this article.

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Chicago Blues CD

I admit, I haven’t been on this webpage in a long time… however it had been an additional pleasure to see It is this kind of an important topic and ignored by so numerous, even professionals. I thank you to assist making people a lot more conscious of possible issueGreat stuff as usual…

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Natalie

So I really enjoyed the article and think its important that people do understand that there are benefits to taking vitamins/supplements but that there are also risks of complications due to interactions with prescription drugs which may have impacted the decision by the author at Slate to write the article. Just guessing though. As a scientists myself and daily vitamin taker I think its critical for society to understand that all research has unbiased intentions but since we are mere humans there is inevitable subconscious motives that can alter the outcome in some small way of research. Often times writers get pulled into this and emphasize small details of a large research project and it doesn’t accurately display the results of the research in an appropriate manner.
That said, I think the Slate writer may have been on to something with the “one a day” thing since those vitamins are definitely not the quality that other companies provide and when vitamins are concerned, quality can be essential for maximal absorption by the body. So perhaps that one writer may have been using that information to fuel the fire for the argument, who knows? but I wouldn’t doubt the accuracy seeing that the specific brand is not highly reputable, just highly marketed.

Even with the highest quality vitamin, some bodies are deficient at getting the nutrients to the important areas and utilizing the necessary vitamins to aid in important biological functions. This is called aging. Its inevitable. So conclusions from studies done on vitamins are very subjective to the consumer.

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Jeff J.

I wonder what Jonny’s take is on the recent controversy over the link between calcium supplements and increased risk of heart disease. I was taking a calcium/magnesium supplement, but I was thinking of switching to straight magnesium.

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Dr. Jonny

Don’t know yet. It’s one study, and i haven’t yet read the details. Was it only calcium? was it calcium with or without vitamin D? with or without magnesium? in what amounts?

OVERALL i would say that for a long time I’ve believed that we emphasize calcium far too much. The calcium “bank account” is as much affected by calcium robbers (like soda) as it is by “deposits”. I also like the 1:1 ratio (or at absolute most, 2:1) ratio for calcium and magnesium, which many people do not do. (Remember, magnesium is one of the most important supplements for heart health.) And i also think- in a general sense- that with all the dairy we consume many people get much more calcium than they realize.

all in all, I haven’t formed an opinion yet, but once i know all the facts i will let you know my thoughts

warmly
jb

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James

Chances are the calcium supplement you are taking now is a rock source of calcium. The label will say “calcium carbonate”, which is nothing more than limestone. AlgaeCal Plus contains an organic, plant-sourced calcium form derived from a unique South American marine algae called Algas Calcareas™.

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Wayne Entress

excellent article I concur wholeheartedly with the concept of vitamin ssupplementation. Have used them responsibly for years and I am convinced of vitamin efficacy. I have and will continue use of quality supplement products.I believe the establishment will continue its quest to have all of us on medication.I would rather put my faith in Linus Pauling over a bureaucrat.

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