Supplement Do Work, Science Trumps Opinion

Editorial by David Mulvain

This is a response to Froma Harrop’s editorial Supplements don’t work, but the industry rolls on.  Froma is a nationally known political columnist that used supplements once-upon-a-time and apparently, based on her experience, we can get all the nutrients we need by eating “reasonably” well.  Research does not support that conclusion.  First, I have yet to see a study that reports finding a single person that that gets the recommended daily value (DV) of all of the essential nutrients without supplementation.  Second, finding people that consume adequate servings of all of the food groups, especially fruit and vegetables, is uncommon.  Third, studies going all the way back to the 50’s show continually decreasing levels of essential nutrients in our food.  Fourth, aging, compromised health, environmental toxins, stress and poor food choices increase our nutritional needs.  Fifth, the vitamin and mineral recommendations are based on prevention of deficiency diseases, not optimum health.  I recommend aiming for optimal health.

Two recent studies appear to support the anti-supplement point of view.  One found a higher incidence of prostate cancer related death in men that used the herb, saw palmetto.  The other, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, followed 38,772 older women (average age 62 in1986) that took one or more supplements a day.  Forty percent of the women have died.  Several supplements were associated with a slightly higher risk of death among supplement users.  The question is; did supplements contribute to their deaths.  There are several problems with the study. The data was self-reported. There were no checks on compliance, or the potency of the supplements used.  No reason was given for why they took the supplements and no cause and effect was established. Also, the results of the women’s study are inconsistent with the greater body of literature, and the actual statistics show little difference in death rates between users and non-users for most of the 15 supplements participants reported taking. The biggest risks were with copper and iron.  Over use of either can be a problem with people with certain medical conditions.  Use of calcium and B vitamins both showed a slight increase in longevity.  Overall, by today’s standards, this study was poorly done.

Froma did say that she would continue using fish oil capsules and vitamin C—a wise decision.  The most conclusive study on long term supplement use is, Usage patterns, health and nutritional status of long-term multiple dietary supplement users, (Nutrition Journal, 2007).  The health of a group of people taking high levels of supplements for 20 years or longer, was compared to a group of people that had not taken any supplements for 20 years and a group that took only a multivitamin-mineral for 20 years.  Although older, the multiple supplement user group had dramatically lower rates of diabetes, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, stroke and several other conditions.  They also had healthier levels of HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, C-reactive protein and homocysteine. Ironically, the people taking just a multivitamin had poorer health than non-users.  Most of the women in the Iowa study took only a multivitamin.  Multivitamins have been proven safe and beneficial, but have limitations.

Froma’s editorial actually was political.  She blasted the people that have fought to preserve our legal right to have unrestricted access to supplements.  Over 40 years of scientific studies have proven that supplement use is safe and effective. However, not everyone wants us to have freedom of choice in health care. Follow the money.  Stay tuned for more on the politics of supplementation and the saw palmetto/prostate question.


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