Mythbusting the Debunking of Vitamins

By Jaime Fuller

Vitamins2The debate over vitamin and mineral supplements just got more heated. About six months ago, the Annals of Internal Medicine published an editorial based on three studies that concluded nutritional supplements are a waste of money. Case closed.

Not so, say researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University and other institutions. “It was inflammatory,” said Dr. Balz Frei, PhD, of the editorial. “[It was] quite extreme in its conclusion and its tone.”

The authors of the studies, who are medical doctors, agreed that people’s money would be better spent on fruits, vegetables, and exercise. “We have been recommending that for decades, but it doesn’t work,” argued Dr. Frei. “We need to incentivize people to live a healthy lifestyle and have a healthy diet. It’s a goal we haven’t achieved. In the meantime, a multivitamin is helpful.” He said that much better advice would be allowing people who are on food stamps to buy a multivitamin, since they are typically not using the assistance on healthy food. Currently, receivers of food stamps are not allowed to use them on vitamin supplements.

Dr. Frei explained that there are three categories of micronutrient levels in the body: 1) deficiency – rare but not absent in the United States; 2) inadequacy – above deficiency level, but below the level of recommended dietary allowance (RDA); and 3) chronic disease prevention – this is what all the controversy revolves around.

The study only looked at whether dietary supplements prevent chronic disease, but the truth is they don’t need to. They do so much for the body on a daily basis that disease prevention is an irrelevant criteria. “The purpose of these micronutrients is in the physiology of the body,” Dr. Frei countered.

There are children who don’t get enough vitamin D and end up with soft bones and osteoporosis. Anemia is still prevalent in the US and is the most prevalent deficiency in the world, the result of too little iron in the diet. We also fall short on vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we exceed the sodium recommendation by far, creating a huge problem with hypertension.

“The big issue in this country is that we don’t meet the intake recommendations for these vitamins and minerals,” explained Dr. Frei. This results in suboptimal health and suboptimal functioning of the body. There are thousands of enzyme reactions that require these micronutrients. They are necessary for normal physiology, normal metabolism, immune function, and good bone health. We need a total of 13 vitamins and 14 nutritionally essential minerals to not only survive, but to thrive.

A study was conducted at the Linus Pauling Institute of 15 institute supporters who are all health-conscious people. They kept a food diary for three consecutive days, and the information was plugged into a database that converted their food intake into micronutrient intake. These people who thought they ate healthy diets met the RDA levels for only half of the necessary vitamins and minerals. Much to their surprise, many of them had severely low levels of certain micronutrients. When a vitamin supplement was added to the data, the requirements of all but four micronutrients were met. Those four are difficult for just about anybody to get the minimum allowance of and include vitamins D and K, calcium, and potassium.

People should be able to get enough vitamin K and potassium from their diets, but not necessarily the other two. Calcium is too bulky for vitamins to contain 100% of the RDA, so your best bet is to take a separate calcium supplement.

Making sure you get all the nutrients you need is as easy as $10 a year.

“We are not saying supplements are the magic bullet,” stressed Dr. Frei. “They are not. They are supplements. You should still try to eat a healthy diet and live a healthy lifestyle.”

The question that needs asking is, is it possible get all of the nutrients we need from food alone? “It is possible, with a few exceptions,” answered Dr. Frei. “Vitamin D is very hard.” The RDA is actually not enough for humans to thrive because it only covers the amount needed for optimal bone health. What most people don’t know is that vitamin D is also necessary for proper immune function. It increases production of antimicrobial peptides (proteins that kill microorganisms) and keeps us from getting sick as often. Vitamin D’s impact in the immune system is so powerful that cases of tuberculosis have been cured solely from heliotherapy. That’s sun exposure, for you non-scientists.

The fact is people are buying more and more dietary supplements. The brand of vitamin does not make much difference, and price is not necessarily an indicator of effectiveness either. The best way to figure out which supplements are acceptable is to subscribe to ConsumerLab.com, where they test the most popular supplements and stamp them as either approved or not approved. One that is approved, among many, is Centrum Silver.

Does it matter whether you take a micronutrient in isolation or in conjunction with others? Nope. Although there are some interactions between micronutrients, not to mention dietary factors that may inhibit absorption, any effect from those interactions is not enough to make a difference.

When it comes to the vitamin supplement debate, there is no simple answer. One overarching statement is not necessarily correct just because it was made by physicians. MDs are trained neither specifically nor extensively in nutrition. They see patients after nutrition has failed, at a point when prevention is too late.

It would be nice to believe that we can be perfectly healthy without supplements, but the truth is most people are not. There’s no harm in spending three cents a day to make sure you are at optimal health. The only adverse effects from supplements have come from taking excessive dosages rather than the recommended levels.

“You have to understand how these nutrients work,” emphasized Dr. Frei. He went on to say that medical doctors are not nutrient experts and are not qualified to make grandiose statements about whether supplements are useful or not. “I’m not out there giving medical advice. I’m not an MD. I’m a PhD.”

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1 thought on “Mythbusting the Debunking of Vitamins

  1. I don’t think vitamins are the devil, but the scientific evidence suggests that they aren’t “insurance” against illness either, and they won’t make up for a nutrient deficient diet. There is a misconception that vitamins – multivitamins, especially – are at best beneficial and at worst harmless. And this just isn’t the case.

    There actually is an inherent risk in taking some supplements. Folic acid, which is the synthetic form of folate, has been linked to an increase in colon, lung, prostate, and breast cancers. And it’s recently been suggested that calcium supplementation is linked with an increase in heart disease risk. Further, the scientific research has found that there is no evidence to indicate that a widely applied, moderate reduction of salt intake could prevent the development of hypertension.

    “There’s no harm in spending three cents a day to make sure you are at optimal health. The only adverse effects from supplements have come from taking excessive dosages rather than the recommended levels.”

    Actually – there is quite a bit of potential for harm. Additionally, most isolated supplements (i.e. a Vitamin A or vitamin B12 supplement) are for well over 100% of the RDA. Vitamin E and beta carotene have been linked to an increase in lung cancer in smokers.

    I think it’s quite irresponsible of Dr. Frei to recommend people take a multi-vitamin without citing any evidence other than his opinion – especially when his opinion is in opposition to the findings of three large studies; facts and statistics are highly important and speak far more than his being a PhD.

    That said, lovely writing here Jaime! Would love to read a follow-up to this that features the (possibly conflicting) opinions of some other authorities 🙂

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