Resident IA critical thinker John Turnbull takes a look the multi-billion dollar vitamin industry and asks the question: are we just paying for expensive urine?

Vitamins are good for you, right?

IF YOU'VE GOT a cold coming on, a dose of Vitamin C will knock it on the head. If you want to boost your immune system, take a dose of vitamin A. Vitamin B gives you B…B…Bounce.

And then there’s vitamin D to prevent rickets, vitamin K for osteoporosis and vitamin M that will make your breath smell good and improve your chances with the opposite sex. Or maybe I’m thinking of tic-tacs…

Let’s start with a definition of a vitamin, thanks to the good people at the Oxford online dictionary;

'Any of a group of organic compounds which are essential for normal growth and nutrition and are required in small quantities in the diet because they cannot be synthesized by the body: most people can get all the vitamins they need from a healthy diet.'

Wait, what? Do they really expect anyone to take health care advice from an online dictionary?

Like many young people who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, I was given the occasional vitamin tablet as a child. Perhaps due to budgetary reasons, my mother wasn’t into everyday supplementation but a few of my friends would come to school with a couple of oversized ‘chewable’ vitamin C tablets that would invariably be thrown out with the squashed fruit.

But vitamins are good for you, right? Hulk Hogan told me so. And so did this guy…

While some alternative health practitioners (and even some doctors) claim that the western diet has become so poor that everyone needs vitamins to get the most out of life, the balance of evidence suggests that the vast majority of people who live in the Western world get sufficient vitamins from their diet.

Is there any science to back this up?

Sure. There are a number of studies about the efficacy of vitamins available on PubMed, however a frequently cited paper is ‘Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate in Older Women’. While this is an observational study (and is therefore somewhat limited), the sample size is strong at 38,772 and the research methodology seems sound. The conclusion:

'In older women, several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk; this association is strongest with supplemental iron. In contrast to the findings of many studies, calcium is associated with decreased risk.' (JAMA Network)

Note that calcium is routinely prescribed to older women to prevent the loss of bone mass.

As a counterpoint, a recent study by the Oregon State University claims that most previous trials of supplements have had flawed methodologies, and that

‘more than 90 per cent of U.S. adults don’t get the required amount of vitamin D and E for basic health’.

It’s interesting to note that the lead researcher on this project is Dr Balz Frei, director of the Linus Pauling Institute. As Linus Pauling was the first to propose vitamin C supplementation over 30 years ago, it seems plausible that the current head of the institute may have a vested interest in keeping the myth alive.

The 90 per cent claim is also demonstrably untrue. Are 90 per cent of U.S. adults currently desperately unhealthy due to lack of vitamin supplementation? No, they are not.

What about megadoses? I’ve heard vitamin megadosing can cure cancer!

Nope. Just about any substance is toxic if you consume enough of it, and vitamins are no exception. There are some so-called CAM (or SCAM if you prefer) practitioners who prescribe megadoses to cure everything from cancer to AIDS, but the medical literature is clear — vitamin megadosing has no upside (as your liver and kidneys remove the excess vitamins) and massive potential downsides including organ damage and death. Check out whatstheharm.net for many sad cases.

I don’t read anything that isn’t in bullet points 

Here are some situations where you probably do need vitamins:

  • You have a vitamin deficiency, as diagnosed by a doctor.
  • You are pregnant or planning to become pregnant — folate is proven to reduce the incidence of spina bifida.
  • You live in a third world country or have a diet completely lacking in any fruit or vegetables (although a better solution would just be to eat some fruit and vegetables). 

(image courtesy of roshidan-rashid.blogspot.com.au)

By contrast, here are some situations where you probably don’t need vitamins:

  • You’re hung over.
  • You feel you’ve been eating badly lately.
  • Your mum told you it was a good idea to take vitamins and you do it out of habit.
  • Jenni from marketing just started taking a multi-vitamin and she looks fantastic.

But what about that cyclist bloke? He takes vitamins and seems pretty fit

When you see professional athletes promoting vitamins, they’re not doing it because the vitamins magically turned them into the spectacular physical specimen they are today. That was genetics and hard work.

What the vitamins really do is supplement their income, which is the same reason that sports people do ads for cars, insurance and KFC. If you take vitamins because Cadel Evans does, then you should really buy an air conditioner from Tubby Taylor and grab a box of ‘chicken’ with Michael Clarke.

Instead of professional athletes, how about we listen to sciency-types who base their conclusions on the available evidence rather than commercial interest?

 

Simple rule of life:  go to the doctor now and again for a checkup. If said doctor prescribes you vitamins, you should take them. Otherwise, save yourself some money, go for a nice long walk and have an apple now and again.

And don’t get me started on Vitamin Water…

Think for yourself!

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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