Multi-vitamins And Vitamin Supplements Can Do More Harm Than Good
“Except for persons with special medical needs, there is no scientific basis for recommending the routine use of dietary supplements”- Food & Drug Administration
In a rather ironic twist, sales of vitamin supplements have surged as the economy has slowed. Once the mainstay of the health and fitness minded, vitamins are now seen by the general public as a quick, inexpensive and convenient way to improve their health and reduce their chances of getting sick. Thanks to savvy marketing on the part of the supplement industry vitamins now serve as an unofficial insurance policy for those who don’t have medical benefits and can’t afford to see a doctor. There is also the ever-growing number of people who for one reason or another prefer to avoid Western medicine as much as possible. Vitamins are also popular among those who believe that taking a multivitamin will not only improve their health, give them more energy but also compensate for their poor dietary habits. With over 15,000 dietary supplements on the market racking in over 17 billion dollars in sales each year estimates are that anywhere from 25% to 50% of American adults have taken some form of vitamin supplement over the past year.[1,3] However as ubiquitous as these supplements have become there is still little credible and unbiased research to show that vitamin supplements have any effect in improving our health. On the contrary, many studies raise the issue that most supplemented vitamins are not just ineffective but may be bad for your health.
Multi-vitamins & Vitamin Supplements Don’t Improve Your Health
“If a product says on the bottle that it isn’t meant to treat, diagnose or cure disease, what is it supposed to do?”
In 2009 researchers from the Women’s Health Institute concluded a 15 year study of methods to prevent heart disease and cancers in post menopausal women. The study was monumental in its scope, observing a total of 161,808 women using vitamin supplements for eight years and then checking in on them for several years afterwards. The conclusions were not very positive as researchers noted that there was ‘convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD or total mortality.’ Another recent meta analysis of over 27 studies encompassing a total of 355,080 women had a similar finding- namely that multivitamin use had no effect on decreasing the risk of breast cancer. A study on the intake of vitamins E and C by 15,000 male physicians over the course of ten years found absolutely no health benefits as well. These results don’t come from small scale, industry-sponsored, single nutrient research but from credible and peer reviewed scientific study. Nevertheless these findings do little to dissuade the public from using them as the cacophony of self promoting misinformation disseminated by the supplement industry effectively drowns out any negative findings, regardless of how conclusive it may be. What is more cause for concern are other studies have shown that vitamin supplements may actually increase your risk of certain diseases.
Using Multi-vitamins & Vitamin Supplements May Increase Your Risk Of Disease
One of the initial warnings for not using vitamin supplements came in 2005 with a study finding that a high percentage of men who were white, well educated, and who had active and healthy lifestyles with prostate cancer had one thing in common. They regularly took vitamin supplements. Following up on this was a trial of 295,344 men enrolled in the National Institutes of Health Diet & Health Study. The trial found that while vitamin supplements didn’t seem to increase the risk of localized prostate cancer, those who took them frequently had in some cases twice the risk of developing advanced prostate cancer. Frequent users were also were more likely to die from prostate cancer than those who never took vitamin supplements at all - a sobering conclusion to say the least. Positive cancer associations with excessive multivitamin use were strongest in men with a family history of prostate cancer or among those who took individual micronutrient supplements. Including selenium, beta-carotene and zinc.
The use of individual vitamins as antioxidants has also raised concerns in the medical community after one of the most comprehensive reviews of randomized trials of 232,606 adults using beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E and selenium. Researchers found that not only did participants not receive any health benefits from using vitamin supplements, but that supplemented intake of beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may actually increase mortality. More studies were recommended to research the possible effects of vitamin C and selenium on mortality but in 2008 a study on the ability of vitamin E and selenium to lower the risk of prostate cancer was halted amidst fear of potential harm to participants. The study was stopped after it was found that supplemental vitamin C may do more harm than good as it may serve to protect cancer cells.
It gets worse. A recent control study in the United Kingdom found that high circulating blood levels of Vitamin B(12) and (in cohort studies) folate were associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer  casting severe doubts on the use of vitamin B12 supplements and folic acid in men. Another study found that long term use of zinc from multivitamins or single nutrient supplements was associated with a doubling in the risk of prostate cancer. Adding to the growing evidence for an unfavorable effect of zinc on prostate cancer carcinogenesis.
It doesn’t end there; a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that, ‘in patients with vascular disease or diabetes, long-term supplementation with 400 IU/day of vitamin E may increase the risk for heart failure.’ It isn’t all bad feedback on vitamins as there is compelling cause and effect data linking the use of folic acid with consistent and significant reductions in adverse pregnancy outcomes in women. But on the other side there are also studies demonstrating no beneficial effects of calcium and vitamin D supplements in improving bone strength and reducing fractures. It’s a complex issue but not one where the use of supplemented vitamins seem to make sense, especially given the alternatives.
Vitamins and Anti-Oxidants May Inhibit The Benefits of Exercise
It should be noted that ‘effective’ doses of many vitamins and minerals can be toxic and that high levels of any single nutrient being ingested into our bodies is an unnatural occurrence. In nature it isn’t possible to consume just one nutrient as they always coexist with a host of other valuable compounds. Not surprisingly studies have found that high levels of single nutrients can interfere with the functions of other nutrients and the way our body works. Of concern to anyone engaged in an exercise program is the study which found that large amounts of antioxidants can actually reduce the benefits of exercise. A study published in 2009 evaluated the effects of a combination of vitamin C (1000 mg/day) and vitamin E (400 IU/day) on insulin sensitivity in exercising men and the results were eye opening to say the least. They found that supplementation with antioxidants inhibit the beneficial reduction in insulin sensitivity usually produced by exercise and the conclusion was that anti-oxidants may preclude the health-promoting effects of exercise in humans.
Exercise appears to cause some degree of damage to cells in addition to increasing oxidative stress. While not conclusive, some studies have reported that supplementation with vitamin C and E, other antioxidants, or antioxidant mixtures can reduce symptoms or indicators of oxidative stress while having no beneficial effect on performance. This reduction inhibits the otherwise positive benefits of exercise and researchers advise that until studies fully substantiate the long term safety and effects of antioxidants physically active individuals should avoid them and instead ingest a diet of foods rich in antioxidants.[14, 15.16]
Vitamins Can’t Make You Healthy- Eating Well & Exercising Makes You Healthy
Studies questioning the safety and effectiveness of vitamins are numerous- and yet there are hundreds if not thousands of studies that confirm that regular exercise can decrease your risk of everything from depression to cancer and cardiovascular disease. Vitamin supplements however don’t have very convincing records. What has also been proven time and time again is that diets high in natural foods which contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are associated with lower incidences of chronic disease. Taking vitamins in pill form doesn’t yield similar advantages. It sounds like a broken record but whenever we try to duplicate the health benefits of natural foods with an artificial substitutes it usually doesn’t work and or produces negative outcomes. The use of omega-3 fortified foods and the many dietary supplements on the market are glowing examples of how the supplement industry promotes the use of synthetically produced ‘nutraceuticals’- all of which have questionable effects on public health. While vitamin supplements have seemed to show some benefit among individuals with severe deficiencies, in the United States it is almost impossible to find such a case- even among poorer populations as improvements in food supply and varieties in diet eradicated such deficiencies earlier in the 20th Century.
Dispelling The Myths: Vitamins Replace Micronutrients Not Found in Modern Diets
“Deficiency symptoms have been induced only under experimental conditions and there is no convincing evidence that the ordinary diet requires supplementation with these nutrients.” Food & Drug Administration
While there is no arguing that the average American diet is one in need of improvement, even with a food intake high in sugars, refined foods, salt and fats micronutrient deficiency to the point of severity is almost non-existent. Our problems stem from the overabundance of food which can lead to obesity and the syndrome of metabolic related diseases but deficiencies are the least of our problems today in spite of what you may hear in the media and from studies funded by the special interest groups who want you to buy their products. A good example is a recent study that made headlines reporting that 90% of Americans are nutrient deficient. The ‘research’ found that nine out of ten Americans are deficient in 11 key nutrients including calcium, vitamin D and potassium. It sounds alarming but before you run to buy some vitamins you might want to consider two important facts;
- The study wasn’t reviewed or recognized by any scientific authorities on nutrition and
- The fact that the study was done by the Milk Processor Education Dairy Research Program and that the study came with a recommendation that drinking more milk would alleviate these deficiencies.
It’s a typical industry-centered public relations campaign which is designed to looks like a scientific study, but is really just another way to make you buy more products. (Read more on industry marketing practices in The Economics of Obesity)
Throughout history we humans have been able to meet our vitamin and mineral needs by consuming available plant and animal foods. With the exception of human breast milk no one food is better than another or absolutely necessary for optimal health, and by mixing and matching our foods we are naturally able to create healthy diets that not only meet our nutrient needs but also suit our tastes, cultural, religious and ethnic preferences.
Dispelling The Myths: Foods Grown Today Have Less Vitamins and Minerals Than Several Years Ago So You Need Vitamin Supplements To Replace Them
“Vitamins and minerals are supplied in abundant amounts by the foods we eat. The Food & Nutrition Board of the National Research Council recommends that dietary needs be satisfied by foods.” – Food & Drug Administration
The depleted soil theory has been a popular selling point for manufacturers in the vitamin industry for years. The theory holds that soils today have been depleted due to intensive agriculture practices so fruits and vegetables today contain less nutrients than they did 50 years ago. Following that logic you need a vitamin supplement to get the missing nutrients. Sounds good but again it isn’t exactly true. Studies have found some reduction in nutrient content in vegetables grown today as opposed to 50 years ago, but his has nothing to do with soil quality which has remained the same. So what is the real story? Well, the marked increase in American food production over the past several decades occurred as farmers developed crops that grew faster and thus produced the greatest yields. The consequence of a faster growing plant is that it can’t acquire the same amount of nutrients from the soil or from synthesis as much as their slower growing counterparts. The differences vary between varieties of plants with declines found in six macronutrients and micronutrients- protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C. The reductions ranged from 6 % for protein, 20 % for vitamin C, 15 % for iron, and 38% for riboflavin.
That being said the study’s author, Donald Davis a biochemist at the University of Texas, affirmed that it was wrong to stop eating vegetables on the grounds they lack nutrients or that vitamin supplementation is in any way necessary. What he did say, was that fruits and vegetables are still extremely high in vitamins, minerals and beneficial phytochemicals and remain our best sources of these nutrients. Valuable nutrients that are not present in vitamin supplements. His study also concluded that while there was a decline in the amount of certain nutrients it must be remembered that this came with the benefit of more available fruits and vegetables available for consumption which have gone a long way towards eliminating severe deficiencies.
More Vitamin Myths Dispelled
There are other arguments put forward by vitamin distributors, all answered by very basic science.
Does cooking reduce the amount of nutrients in our foods?
Absolutely, but not very much and most certainly not to the point where we develop vitamin deficiencies. If this were the case given the laws of natural selection humans would have either died out several hundred thousand years ago when we began using fire to cook out foods or stopped cooking. Either way cooking foods isn’t a valid reason for supplementation. Furthermore- if cooking does reduce vitamin content slightly, what do you think happens when those vitamins are processed and refined by machines and stamped into pill or powder form?
People feel better when they take vitamins.
This argument is equally flawed. Most of the ‘benefits’ of supplements can be explained by the placebo effect and the often ignored ability of the human body to heal itself. Studies showing that people taking vitamins are in better health also conveniently forget to say that statistics show that these people tend to be better educated and have higher incomes. Thus putting them in a subgroup of society that is healthier whether or not they take vitamin supplements.
Unfortunately selling vitamins is often a major source of income for many in the health and fitness fields and few are willing to jeopardize losing their commissions by speaking out against them. Vitamin distributors spend a lot of time convincing professionals in the field to sell their products- I get at least two or three requests a week. All from companies with vitamins purportedly made with ingredients that are more natural and of better quality of what you find on the market. They can be quite persuasive and the compensation is often substantial so it creates a legion of professionals who consumers really trust pushing the use of vitamins. A brilliant marketing ploy, but one that puts profits before public health. The magic pill ideology also takes away from the important and proven effective message of eating more fruits, vegetables and natural foods while incorporating exercise into your life. Taking a pill here and there isn’t going to make you any healthier and in many cases may do more harm than good.
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Kevin Richardson is one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City, an award winning health and fitness writer and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training™. Get a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.
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