Doctors Question Value of Vitamin Supplements

vitamins_Money_and_pills_in_three_colors_RagesossFor years, we’ve been told to take our vitamins. Vitamins have only been billed as practical sense, they have been touted as a necessity in an increasingly automated world in which on-the-run meals, canned foods, frozen entrées and instant ingredients are often diet mainstays. And according to some sources, vitamin supplements have not only been important for ensuring good nourishment, but also guard against chronic illness, like heart disease and cancer.

Some doctors disagree with that last statement. In fact, they are charging that the last few decades of multi-vitamin popping may actually have been doing some patients harm.

So multivitamins aren’t good for us?

According to an editorial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, three different studies looked at whether multivitamins actually had an effect on certain health risks. Those risks were a) the likelihood of preventing a cardiovascular event b) cognitive function in men in later life and c) the development of cancer or heart disease in people who didn’t have nutritional deficiencies.

The findings, say the authors, irrefutably say no. Multivitamins don’t help people stave off the chances of developing chronic disease. Nor do they help improve cognitive function in people with age-related dementia at 65 or older. And they don’t prevent the chance of a cardiovascular event in patients who, for example, have already had a heart attack.

Supporting the $30 billion vitamin and mineral supplement industry (2011) therefore, because we are afraid of the possibility of developing a chronic illness, is wasting our money.

Research, peer reviews and opinions

But not everyone is completely convinced. One article printed in the British Daily Telegraph and ironically, republished by the U.S. website PubMed Health, points out that the editorial that the researchers wrote was more publicized than the studies it was based on. The actual studies received relatively little peer critique “which is disappointing as it summarizes findings from multiple studies, and is one of the strongest forms of evidence.” In other words, vigorous debate is as much a part of scientific investigation as the findings that are put forth as evidence.

The newspaper article also calls into question whether the editorial is more about opinion than the actual scientific results: Is this about doctors’ confident findings, or about ongoing, beneficial research?

This point was also raised by one of the comments left on the editorial, who said that the authors had not considered certain hallmark findings published by the AMA in 2012. The 2012 study revealed that all cancer rates excluding prostate dropped 8 percent when a daily multivitamin was administered.

Scientists rarely are willing to state irrefutably that a “case (is) closed” about a given study. There’s a reason: There’s always somebody, or something that contradicts the finding. Find a loophole in the argument, and there goes a researcher’s well-stocked notoriety, and possibly his or her reputation.

Multivitamins and which chronic illnesses?

The authors did make an exception for Vitamin D, which they said may be of help to individuals who are susceptible to falls. However, they made no mention of the benefit of calcium in individuals with bone-related disorders like osteoporosis.

The researchers also made no mention of the fact that there are chronic conditions that due to new technology, have only recently been found to benefit from multivitamins. One example is  celiac disease, which prevents the absorption of key nutrients from fresh food.  Are there other diseases that may be affected by nutritional deficiencies?

Vitamin supplements: How nourishing is our food?

To be sure, not everyone is in love with our dependence on vitamin supplements. The Office of Dietary Supplements, which is overseen by the National Institutes of Health, points out that research findings are often conflicting and “observational.” It mentions several studies, widely varying in their findings to substantiate this. But it also notes that “No U.S. government health agency, private health group, or health professional organization promotes regular use of an MVM (multivitamins and minerals) or individual nutrients without considering first the quality of a person’s diet. However, individuals with poor nutrient intakes from diet alone, who consume low-calorie diets, or who avoid certain foods (such as strict vegetarians and vegans) might benefit from taking MVMs.”

So can researchers actually say that multivitamins are ineffective? Is a blanket assertion that multivitamins aren’t any good for “chronic illness” (but while actually implying a limited number of diseases – not all chronic illnesses) really educating consumers and helping them to choose their healthcare wisely? Or does it just add one more layer of confusion in an increasingly automated society?

No doubt this will continue to be a highly contested topic, contrary to what the authors implied when they suggested that their research was conclusive.  As the Linus Pauling Institute (LPI) points out, ensuring that people can actually buy food that has the recommended daily amount of those nutrients is the first stage in cutting vitamins from daily use.

“To call ‘the case … closed'” says LPI, ” and label MVM supplements as useless, harmful or wasteful is highly premature and unscientific, and does not serve public health.”

Image by Ragesoss

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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