Major media outlets like NPR, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and others are telling us that new studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine have conclusively proven that vitamins and supplements are a waste of money at best, and possibly even bad for you.
This is a familiar refrain of these large media outlets and the medical commentariat. A couple of years ago, a very similar story prompted this same kind of hysteria from the same sources. In that case, we found that it was easy to poke holes in the conclusions that were being trumpeted as “airtight.” In that case, we enlisted the help of Nutritional Medicine Expert Dr. Alan R. Gaby to help us understand the merits of the 2011 studies, and their very obvious faults.
There are three new studies that have caused this new hue and cry. We’re going to examine them one by one, and see if they really do tell us that vitamins are worthless.
One of the studies looks at what happened when people took a multivitamin, or a placebo (sugar pill) after they’d had a heart attack. Although we’re not sure what multivitamin was used, most such studies use the equivalent of Centrum Silver®. The average age in the study was 65; 18% were women; and the average time between the first heart attack, and beginning a multivitamin, was 4.5 years.
The results of this study don’t apply to people under the age of 65, or to women, or to people who’ve never had a heart attack, or to people who start taking a multivitamin shortly after a first heart attack! Unfortunately, you don’t get that impression from the media reports and from the medical doctors commenting on the study. You get the impression that this study concluded that for everyone, multivitamins are unhealthy and a waste of money. However, the authors themselves didn’t find any negative effects of taking a multivitamin in this group of older men, nor do they try to say that their results apply to younger people who haven’t had a heart attack.
The next study compared a multivitamin to placebo for its effect on cognitive decline, such as memory loss and Alzheimers. This study was conducted on close to 6000 male doctors aged 65 or older. Again, these results are meaningless for women; for people under the age of 65, and even for people with very different levels of wealth and education, compared to American male doctors.
The last study was not original research but rather a study of studies to examine whether vitamins and minerals could help prevent cancer or heart disease in those who had never had those conditions. This type of study allowed the researchers to look at existing scientific evidence for multivitamins as well as individual nutrients such as vitamin E, selenium, folic acid, and calcium. The value of this kind of study is that it includes very large numbers of study subjects, so the authors are less likely to be fooled by random occurrences. However, the conclusions they were able to reach were limited because in each study, different preparations of different nutrients were used. The authors concluded that two good quality studies on multivitamins showed a slightly reduced incidence of cancer in men but not women, and confirmed what many other studies have found: that isolated Vitamin E and beta-carotene raise risks of disease.
The authors actually give a conditional endorsement to the concept of using multivitamins in their article:
“One explanation for this result (that studies on individual nutrients often don’t find the benefit that some would expect) could be that the physiologic systems affected by vitamins and other antioxidant supplements are so complex that the effects of supplementing with only 1 or 2 components is generally ineffective or actually does harm.”
The editorial accompanying the three studies proclaimed “Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Supplements.” Do you think these studies proved that supplements are a waste of money, or bad for you? For women, for people under the age of 65, and for those who choose to take high quality multivitamins, these studies don’t prove much of anything. They certainly don’t justify the headlines we’ve been seeing.