A Postscript to Vitamin Supplementation

A few weeks ago, I was perplexed.  After all, my whole life, everyone has been telling me to take a vitamin supplement.  Then, a new study led by Jaakko Mursu of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio and the University of Minnesota, comes out suggesting that doing just that might be harmful to my health. I decided to let my confusion fuel productive action. I went to work checking credible sources and reading labels on everything I eat to decide what I should do.

Here is some evidence from a Minnesota Star Tribune article about the research that has influenced my decision the most:

According to Duffy MacKay, vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the study did not prove that supplements were dangerous. “It’s important to keep in mind that this is an associative — not a cause and effect — study,” he wrote in a prepared statement. He said that “reasonable use” of dietary supplements is just one part of a healthy lifestyle, and that “dietary supplements should not be expected, in and of themselves … to prevent chronic disease.”

The article goes on to say that lead study researcher Mursu agrees that the study doesn’t prove the supplements were to blame for a shorter lifespan. “But it does show that they don’t prevent heart disease or cancer or extend life, he said: “I would just advise people to put more into (an) improved diet.””

Okay, so the lead researcher agrees that vitamin supplements may not be the cause of a shorter lifespan, they just don’t extend it; that’s not what most of the headlines intimated when the research first came out.   Besides, aren’t there other potential benefits from vitamins besides preventing cancer and extending life?

For example, will the proper combination of vitamins and minerals improve my metabolism?  Even though I eat mostly natural, whole foods, am I getting vitamins and minerals in the right proportion?

Also, not all vitamins are created equal. Some are water soluble and others are fat soluble, like vitamins A and E.  According to a SELF Magazine Blog by Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, “Water-soluble nutrients, such as vitamin C and the B family of vitamins, aren’t stored in the body, so you need a steady supply of these.” I figure a reputable multivitamin company will have done the work to make sure that the vitamins and the minerals in the bottle are well balanced – and my label reading seems to bear this out.

Another source Walter F. DeNino, on behalf of OUTSIDE Magazine online, wrote this about multivitamins:
“One a day, regardless. Even the most diligent eaters frequently miss out on essential nutrients, so multivitamins are a good insurance policy. However, since the supplement industry isn’t tightly regulated, look for the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) symbol somewhere on the bottle.”

Okay, so from what I know, I am going to take a multivitamin.  I no longer feel confused.  There seem to be at least ten ways a vitamin supplement might improve my health and well-being that the Mursu study doesn’t address.  Please, tell me where I’m wrong.

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Date: Sunday, 6. November 2011 15:19
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  1. 1

    try to use the data available. There isn't any that shows that multivitamins ever helped anyone, is there?
    Do Walter DeNino and Monica Reinagel have any studies? Would you trust your health to a blogger from Self Magazine? I wouldn't. Make yourself feel better by accepting advice from the nationally known and trusted experts from the esteemed scientists and experts at Self magazine. I didn't know it was a science journal.
    Have you ever looked at the Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter? Or the Environmental Nutrition newsletter. They don't take advertising and would be worth subscribing to.
    Eat your vegetables and you get the vitamins you need, in proper proportions, combined with micronutrients and phytochemicals that are way more likely to be of some benefit.
    Flush the vitamins! I know it is a tough concept to adjust to. Saturated fat isn't that bad, either. Despite all the years it was demonized and the ideas made so much sense. They just didn't stand up to scrutiny. Read the newsletters I suggest. The Berkeley Wellness Letter and the Nutrition Action News from the Center for Science in the Public Interest are two more if you really want to have more paper sloshing around your bedroom. (like me)

  2. 2

    Thanks for your comments. You are clearly passionate and informed about supplementation. I have checked out the Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter and love it as a resource (also learned to be sure to get sufficient vitamin C for better skin!). It seems not to be completely black and white as far as supplementation. I agree that most articles say eating well is your best source of adequate vitamins and minerals. However, it is almost a full time job to know what eating well means for each person. So, for example, Tufts newsletters says the following:

    "Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director of the FDA’s Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements, said, “Supplements can be useful when they fulfill a specific identified nutrient need that can’t be met by food or is not being met through normal food intake.” The article goes on to say,

    "Examples cited by the FDA included iron and folic acid for pregnant women, B12 for people over 50 (who may not be as able to absorb it from food), and vitamin D for those with darker skin or insufficient exposure to sunlight. The agency’s consumer update, entitled “Fortify Your Knowledge About Vitamins,” advised consulting a physician before beginning any new vitamin regimen.
    Schneeman stressed, “It’s really important to remember that supplements can’t displace a healthful diet— that’s the important nutritional strategy.” "

    So, your points are well taken, but it does require people to get VERY involved in understanding what their bodies need at every age and how to best get it. I fully support that thesis (see my earlier supplement post about really doing your homework). BUT, I also have to say that the food pyramid has been very confusing. It doesn't address age specific needs all that well, and it also doesn't address specific conditions. And frankly, many western doctors are clueless as to nutritional counseling. So, the easiest default, the insurance policy, has been the vitamin supplement. And unless it is proven harmful (the recent study showed it did not cure cancer and that there was a correlation to shortened lifespan in older women), it still seems to be a reasonable fallback for the person who is not motivated to do the research, or who finds themselves in situations where fantastic nutrition is not always possible.

  3. 3

    Here is another analogy that is worth considering. Lets say you ask your car guy how often the oil should be changed in your car to ensure that it will last for a long time. The book says every 5000 miles. The car guy says "even better, change the oil every 3000 miles, and the car will last forever". Makes sense, right? This is called face validity. The idea seems good, and the concept fits well with our general knowledge and appears logical.
    The science comes next. We take fifty cars, and change the oil of half of them every 3000, and the other half every 5000. Then we see how many are still on the road in fifteen years.
    For the purpose of this example, there was no difference in the two groups. And we see that every so often, something as simple as changing the oil actually was done a bit improperly, so the cars that got the oil changed more frequently had a more required repairs. And changing the oil more frequently was more expensive.
    So now what do you do? Do you feel all proud and righteous about changing your oil every 3000 miles, presuming that you are proactively helping your car and continue your habit of excess maintenance? Or do you accept the information that goes counter to the face validity ?

  4. 4

    Your analogy is terrific. I have to agree that for optimum health, one should really know their body, know their nutritional needs and customize a program that really delivers, and not just take an all-around vitamin supplement. Vitamin supplementation isn't a perfect solution, but for some folks, it may be better than not changing the oil at all. Thanks for taking me up on my offer to "tell me where I am wrong." My wish for a perfect world would be for all physicians to be well trained and even incentivized to provide nutritional counseling. Then more of us could get reliable information that is specific to our own bodies. Right now, not everyone subscribes to the Tufts Newsletter, and popular media abounds with random and often contradictory nutritional advice. If I see this headline one more time, I may scream: "The Ten Foods You Should Eat for Better Health." Information is not perfect, access to information is not perfect, and people are busy. That being said, I would love to hear more from you and invite you to guest post on 7 Layer Living on nutrition and other health topics – perhaps you can help further illuminate how to attain better wellness.

  5. 5

    One of the major problems when it comes to "Nutrition" is that sheer amount of misinformation. This is fairly true of all natural methods aimed at improving one's health. Diet and Lifestyle have always been some of the greatest cornerstones of health problems.

    However, people in general fail to see what is staring them in the face. It's called a "supplement" for good reason. You take it in times where you need it because you aren't otherwise getting it. It shouldn't be considered a long-term project.

    That does require people to make a proactive, conscientious effort to know more about what they need for themselves. The modern medicine world, attached so strongly to pharmaceuticals have damn near scared people away from the idea that in MANY cases they could be looking after their own health with minimal adjustments to diet and lifestyle.

    You even mentioned the food pyramid, I'll take it a step further to say that it's near at all completely worthless. When you attempt to lock people in to a very strict and essential regimen, it further discourages them from believing they could make simple changes and be on a healthy path.

    Balance IS the key to a great healthy life and it requires balance from all input into that life… the most annoying thing is… it's not that hard at all to work your way to that point, but most people don't know this.

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