The false hope of vitamin supplements.

In the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope looks at the (possible) false hope of vitamin supplements. Vitamins are essential—we’d quickly die without them. But it’s looking increasingly likely that vitamin supplements—vitamins in pill form—are significantly less effective than vitamins that occur naturally, in food. Vitamins may be what allow our bodies to avoid the sorts of diseases that occur in their absence (scurvy and rickets, for example), and are likely help for people who lack the ability to produce or process vitamins in food, due to age or ailment. But they’re apparently useless in preventing cancer, heart disease, etc. And they can even be harmful. A massive dose of vitamin C does nothing to prevent colds. High rates of beta carotene are correlated with lung cancer. People’s faith in vitamins exceeds the science.

The moral of the story? Get your nutrition from food. If you think you need vitamin C, have an orange. Need some beta carotene? Eat a carrot.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

8 replies on “The false hope of vitamin supplements.”

  1. I can think of two major problems with vitamin supplements:

    1. Many vitamins are actually a class of chemicals. For example, Vitamin B is actually vitamins B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, and 12. E is a set of 8 chemicals. Foods and supplements may contain different forms, and the ratios may be important.

    2. Some vitamins (or forms thereof) may require the presence of other compounds for intestinal absorption. These could be present in food but absent in “purified” supplements.

  2. Calcium is regularly augmented with Vitamin D by physicians for the more efficient and complete absorption of the calcium.

    Some studies (sorry, I have no link) have shown that 100,000 IU of Vitamin D taken once a month can improve Rheumatoid Arthritis, Osteoporosis, and other autoimmune diseases (for the same reasons as above). Most of this info I get from my doctor, and Lisa’s doctors.

    We both have autoimmune diseases.

  3. I can’t count the number of well meaning folks who suggested vitamins to me when I was on dialysis, vitamins can be very harmful for kidney patients unless they are specifically designed for kidney patients. Calcium is a big no no for most with ESRD, Vitamin D simply won’t be absorbed in its normal non prescription form by failing kidneys, Vitamin C can cause damage etc. Everyone is different, vitamins are medicine/chemicals/drugs even if they aren’t prescription, in my humble opinion people should ask their doctors what vitamins if any are appropriate for them to take before taking any.

  4. That’s the kind of thing that I was getting at with my disclaimer about folks who have shortages due to a health problem—there are definitely folks for whom vitamin supplements are a good and necessary thing.

  5. Here’s a rebuttal, not to this specific article, but to others like it, from the Life Extension Foundation.

    It’s a non profit, but they are purveyors of vitamins and other supplements, so obviously they have a dog in this fight. Nevertheless, there are some interesting points made about flawed studies.

    Last year, there was a story carried on all the news outlets (even NPR, alas) with the headline stating that taking calcium had no effect on women’s risk of developing osteoporosis.

    In truth, what the study said is that most of the women in the study failed to take the prescribed dose. Among those who followed through, there was a significant reduction in hip fracture incidence.

    (And no digging was required to find this out – it was part of the news story, and even though it was a direct contradiction of the headline, every news outlet ran with it, using the same headline.)

    The headline should have been: “Calcium supplements only prevent osteoporosis if you actually TAKE them.”

    The pharmaceutical companies would, I am certain, be delighted if we all gave up calcium, Vitamin D, and magnesium and instead turned to Boniva, Fosimax, or Actonel in our later years, to shore up our deteriorating bones.

    My suspicions are aroused by inflated claims for the benefits of supplements as well as by the naysayers who have much to gain when we turn to big pharma rather than to prevention.

  6. “there are definitely folks for whom vitamin supplements are a good and necessary thing.”

    At the same time, there are some folks with medical issues for whom certain vitamin supplements have zero effect and end up getting told to take the supplements anyways because, well, who doesn’t need vitamins? Example- individuals who have Thalassemia Minor generally only show as a symptom a mild anemia and, unrelated, ridiculously small red blood cells. Those with the Major form of the disease can’t, and I over-simplify, process iron. A lot of times, you have to have chelation therapy to remove iron deposits from your body. You cannot, under any circumstances, take iron supplements if you have the major form of Thalassemia.

    Some doctors will try and tell those with the minor form, to take iron supplements and then wonder why nothing happens to cure the anemia. Here’s the thing- if you have the Major form, you can’t take iron, because your body can’t process it- it just sits there, building up in your body instead. If you have the Minor form, you don’t have that particular problem, but continuing to dump extra iron in your system simply doesn’t, and I over-simplify “stick.” It’s a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the doctor- you’re anemic, thus, iron. But that’s not always right. Harvard has a better explanation. I think being less knee-jerk about how important extra vitamin supplements are in any situation (ahem, my father. But that’s another story) is definitely a step in the right direction.

  7. I am all for getting your vitamins from food. Problem is, many foods, even organic ones, grown in modern depleted soils simply do not pack sufficient nutrition to get a full day’s vitamins from a daily quantities. My approach is to grow as much of my own food as I can, making sure that my garden is well-amended to ensure nutrient-rich soil. Even then, I still do some supplementation – particularly anti-oxidants and cod liver oil because we live in an extremely stressful world and need the higher levels.

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