Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | October 16, 2011

Taking on Supplements; It’s About Time!

Hallelujah. At last there is an actual, published paper (full text behind subscription firewall, unfortunately) objectively documenting not only a lack of longevity benefit for several commonly consumed dietary supplements, but a numerical association indicating potential harm. Finally!

Investigators looked at nearly 39,000 women (in scientific terms: a lot) over 19 years of follow up (in scientific terms: a long time) and found increased risk of death in women who took supplemental iron (strongest association), copper, zinc, magnesium, Vitamin B6, and multi-vitamins.


If nothing else, that should at least give one pause when considering whether or not to take supplements at all, especially in the demographic studied (the “older female”). But are they overstating their case? Scare-mongering? Not at all. In fact, the following caution was explicitly added by the researchers:

“This, of course, is just one study, and other similar studies have not found such a dramatic increase in mortality,” said Mursu, who is also affiliated with the University of Minnesota. “Nevertheless, these studies have provided very little evidence that commonly used dietary supplements would help to prevent chronic diseases.”

They even say in so many words that they have demonstrated merely an association, and not a causal relationship.

Still, I know you’ll be shocked — shocked!! — to hear from a supplement industry whack job apologist spokesman that you should pay no attention to these trifling findings:

These researchers “really do overstate the potential for harm, and understate any benefit,” he said. “The researchers started out with the intention of identifying harm. I caution against making overstated assumptions and conclusions from this data.”

May I respectfully submit (well, as respectfully as possible while snorting hot beverages through my nose at the flagrant hypocrisy) that it is the supplement manufacturers and salesmen who, over the decades, have tended to overstate the benefits without even acknowledging the existence of risk. More:

[The spokesman] noted that “anything, including water, can be harmful if you overdo it.”

Here we go, descending into the old Prohibition-era tactic of watching goldfish immersed in pure alcohol die to illustrate the perils of drink. Of course water is indeed a harmful, harmful substance. (Some) kidding aside, even just drinking way too much over too short a period really is lethal (proving mainly that it is indeed possible to die of stupidity). Finally, though, he resorts to a simple lie:

In the real world, you cannot get all the needed nutrients from diet alone, he said. So supplements are needed when you fall short. People need to analyze their diet and figure out what supplements they need. [emphasis mine]

That statement is wrong, untrue, inaccurate, false, incorrect, and not right. In general terms, this is either a mistake, an error, and/or a lie.

It may be inconvenient, expensive, or difficult to get required micronutrients from the diet (technically, from the environment: the natural biological source of vitamin D is sunlight), but it is indeed possible and, when actually studied with any scientific rigor, better for you (ie, consuming fatty fish is superior to consuming fish oil supplements, partly because the actual fish contains protein and other good nutrients, and partly because the fish oil in supplements often comes from the fish’s liver, where toxic metabolites build up from other things the fish has consumed). Many other nutrients are found in foods that lots of people don’t like to eat, like dark green vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Fresh food may be more expensive or difficult to obtain, especially given certain geographic or socioeconomic constraints (fresh seafood far inland; paucity of grocery stores in poorer urban areas; etc.)

The realproblem is that precious few people go to the trouble of actually analyzing the nutrients in their diet (their true diet; what they really eat, not what they claim to the guy in the health food store that they eat) before grabbing a bunch of giant bottles off the shelves and popping handfuls of pills instead because they don’t have the time or inclination to prepare or procure an actual diet. Worse are the gullible folks who go to great lengths to consume all the right foods yet are still led to believe that it’s “impossible to get all the needed nutrients from diet alone.” Not only are they paying through the nose for organic and natural foods (formerly known as just “food”), they’re also shelling out more of their hard-earned cash for extraneous supplements that are only giving them very expensive urine.

But just for the hell of it, let’s give that supplement guy the last word (though granted they’re technically the first words of his statement):

Speaking for the supplement industry, Duffy MacKay, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, said that people who use supplements tend to live healthier lives.

If that’s true, then people who use supplements are also the ones to whom health, wellness, and, presumably, longevity, are most important.  Who then should be all the more attentive to the message of this study that supplements can be dangerous, instead of being lulled into submission by aggressive supplement advertising telling them that all their low-tech efforts at healthy living are for naught.



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  2. Did he really say that it wasn’t possible to get all the necessary nutrients without supplements? Seriously? I guess it’s just an evolutionary miracle that the species managed to survive until the birth of the supplement industry.

    As a woman who takes iron supplements, I’ll have to read that study. (Chronically low serum ferritin; I don’t seem to absorb iron well from plant-based sources like the dark leafy greens I love so much.)

  3. I can’t believe I actually found a physician who is not only knowledgeable but funny. Wow,! How about those stupid ads for the supplement for people who are too old, weak, sick or whatever and cannot get food down? The companies that make them are actually advertising them to healthy people claiming that if you don’t have time to eat, you can drink their product. Yuck!

  4. Amen!

  5. So multi-vitamins are bad, too? I hate the whole supplement craze, but thought at least multi-vitamins could be beneficial if you were one who didn’t particularly eat a great diet. Or if you were ill or stressed.

  6. I remember a lecture years ago by a Dr. Israel. He said that if the Almightly had meant for people to take vitamins he would have made them grow on trees. Turns out the old guy was right.

  7. What about supplements for people who are deficient? I, too have always had my doubts about vitamin supplementation, but when my PMD found that my ferritin and hgb levels were low (very low in the case of the FE) she suggested iron supplements (an extended-release iron with added vitamin C). The low levels are probably due to bleeding from fibroids. I’ve been taking them for a couple of months and am due for a repeat blood draw soon. I actually feel better–not as cold and fatigued as I was before. I’m wondering if the iron is actually helping!

  8. I would add another likely exception. Vitamin D supplements for people with low blood levels. Especially, in Seattle in the winter for an office worker when it is dark when he goes to work and dark when he goes home.

  9. If you have an actual diagnosed deficiency then sure, take them.
    This article is about taking supplements for supplements sake and pretending that is somehow useful.
    Vit D and calicum in women shows some benefit.
    Iron if iron-deficient
    Vit D is still up for debate in many other areas.
    Thiamine if your diet is solely alcohol based.
    Along with other examples that this article is not talking about.

  10. Ah, so all those Flintstones vitamins I took as a kid were worthless? But they tasted so nasty, they had to worth something!

  11. […] Wait. There are also vitamins in food? Vitamin pills are probably not as magical as vitamin pill manufacturers would like you to think. […]

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