Want to Stay Healthy? Don’t Rely on Vitamins

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Americans spend nearly $12 billion each year on vitamin supplements, hoping they will steer us away from diseases like cancer and heart attacks. But it turns out they’re just a drain on our wallets.

Should healthy people take supplements to keep them healthy? A panel of experts convened by the government, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, says that for most vitamins and minerals, there is not enough evidence to determine whether the pills can lower risk of heart disease or cancer. And when it comes to beta-carotene (found in carrots and tomatoes) and vitamin E, there is no evidence that they can protect against either heart disease or cancer; in fact, beta-carotene use contributed to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers.

That will come as a surprise to most Americans, who pop pills of omega-3 fatty acids hoping to fend off a heart attack or down vitamins C and E, which are high in antioxidants, to counteract the free-radical damage that contributes to cancer. “In the absence of clear evidence about the impact of most vitamins and multivitamins on cardiovascular disease and cancer, health care professionals should counsel their patients to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet that is rich in nutrients. They should also continue to consider the latest scientific research, their own experiences, and their patient’s health history and preferences when having conversations about nutritional supplements,” task-force member Dr. Wanda Nicholson said in a statement.

(MORE: Vitamin D and Calcium Supplements May Not Prevent Fractures)

The panel based its conclusion on a review of 26 studies, conducted from 2005 to ’13, some of which involved single supplements and others that investigated multivitamins and their relationship to heart disease, cancer and death outcomes. The review built on the panel’s previous report on supplements, in 2003, in which the task-force members said that there was not enough evidence to recommend vitamin A, C or E supplements, multivitamins or antioxidant combinations to prevent heart disease or cancer. At that time, the members also recommended against beta-carotene supplements because of their connection to a higher risk of lung cancer among smokers. In the current review, the members considered additional data on other vitamins and nutrients, including vitamins B and D, as well as zinc, iron, magnesium, niacin and calcium.

The conclusions apply to otherwise healthy people who take the supplements to prevent disease, so it’s not clear how effective, if at all, the pills can be in those at higher risk of heart problems or cancer. There have been hints, however, that the pills might not be the panacea that many people hoped they would be. In 2012, for example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that omega-3 supplements, touted as a powerful weapon against heart disease, did not lower risks of heart attack, stroke, or death from heart disease or any cause. Another study published in 2011 even linked vitamin-and-supplement consumption to a higher risk of death, reporting that women who took multivitamins were 6% more likely to die over a 19-year period, compared with women not taking them.

(MORE: Hold the Salmon: Omega-3 Fatty Acids Linked to Higher Risk of Cancer)

Why the takedown of vitamins, especially if they are so prevalent in good-for-you foods such as fruits and vegetables? Experts believe that the benefits of nutrients like vitamins may depend on how they are presented to the body; some may need the help of other compounds found in their natural form that are inadvertently stripped from individual pills that try to concentrate the health benefits of specific vitamins or minerals. “[T]he 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,” write the authors in their report, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

They recognize, however, that their conclusions are based on relatively few studies, since few trials have addressed the question of whether supplements can prevent disease in healthy people. So the results hold only until more data become available to understand the association more completely. In the meantime, the best way to take advantage of any health-promoting effects of nutrients like vitamins and minerals is to get them in their natural state, by eating a well-balanced diet high in low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.

MORE: Vitamin E May Increase Risk of Prostate Cancer

50 comments
MikeKirsch
MikeKirsch

Greetings from Spain. The article about vitamins is great, although admittedly they are not all good and before taking something to tell us we should not be damaging our health 


Congratulations on the article

http://fitnessesp.com

PeterO'Connor
PeterO'Connor

What a bunch of BS. Just another load of doctors saying don't eat supplements and vitamins - which our forefathers lived off centuries before medicine became anywhere near the degree it is today - and instead promoting drugs and other things which are far worse.


I'm a severe anemic - I would literally have to eat an entire pot roast, a steak every day, or considerable amount of iron rich food to even get the necessary iron I need to function properly on a weekly basis. I NEED my iron supplements.



wickedsupplement
wickedsupplement

Vitamins are necessary for health but for taking these vitamins healthy food is good rather than pills.  

AlvaroPedroche
AlvaroPedroche

Hello from Spain. I think the problem is that we don`t know exactly the amount of vitamins and minerals we are intaking due to the processes our food is submited. People think that  having vitamin supplements will reach the 100% amount of them that are needed. In most of the cases they will overtake the correct amount and suffer its secondary effects. So, if you are going to take some extra vitamins, first you should know the exactly amount of them your are having in you day a day diet.

Thanks for this article!

Álvaro Pedroche 

http://www.consejosfitness.com

RealHealthPro
RealHealthPro

Our body's simply don't get the nutrients they once did. Partially due to highly processed diets and partially due to the nutrient depletion in our soils. Supplementing with high quality vitamins and supplements can be extremely beneficial if not vital to achieve optimal health. The problem is so many supplements out there are ineffective and accomplish very little besides giving you expensive urine. A well informed consumer can significantly boost their health and well-being by adding the right vitamins and minerals into their health regimen. http://realhealthpro.com

Roberta
Roberta

This is just the continuation of a long history of supplement attacks, using misleading and erroneous "studies." If anyone would actually scrutinize the matter past these so-called "experts" he/she will quickly recognize that copious solid evidence is available about very significant supplement benefits (google/bing "2 Big Lies: No Vitamin Benefits & Supplements Are Very Dangerous by Rolf Hefti"). The public ought to understand the bigger picture behind the constant fearmongering about vitamins.

bsardi
bsardi

Disregard what you read here at TIME.  None of the studies cited were intended to provide evidence for advice to individuals, only population groups.  The data from these studies may be pertinent for food fortification, but not to make individual health decisions.  Many Americans are deficient in essential nutrients (magnesium, vitamin B1, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc) and vitamin supplementation would be the most effective way to restore adequacy.  The recommended daily allowances (RDA, RDI, Adequate Intake, Daily Value) were established for health individuals, not smokers, diabetics, obese, athletes, growing children, alcohol users, pregnant females, or people taking nutrient-depleting drugs, people who don't secrete sufficient amounts of stomach acid, which would represent the vast majority of the population. 

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

Is it bad that we've known this for 40 years, but Congress has stymied attempts to regulate supplements at every turn?

AnabelOrozco
AnabelOrozco

It is true that nothing extern can heal the body, it can help, but the body can only heal itself, we were given by nature all the things that we need in order to do so, but unfortunately, the way that we are living these days make us susceptible to disease. I really would like to know were we can find this study and what kind of sources are supporting it. 

If we were living 50 years ago, I would agree that the only vitamins and minerals that we need to consume are in healthy food, but as I said before the environment does not have the same conditions as it did back then. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcU9zCXopUE


postingonline42
postingonline42

when i don't eat healthy for a few days, i start to feel low on energy. I attribute this to lack of B vitamins and Iron, which I have enough of to satisfy doctors but not enough of to be allowed to donate blood. When i take fake vitamins (supplements) during this time, my energy levels come back. Do perfectly healthy people need vitamins? no. I am not perfectly healthy because i focus on my job and family instead. So I will continue to try to get all my vitamins from food and then, when i fail to do so some weeks, use supplements.

BethPriceAlmeida
BethPriceAlmeida

I make my own supplements and eat healthy food. Making my own supplements allows me to control the process and to know that what I am taking is what I meant to take and also that all of the actual good stuff hasn't been processed out of the herb. I would much rather spend the time doing that than to run to the doctor for a cold and die from the freaking side effects!

arvay
arvay

One more pr attack by the drug industry, which wants us to be unhealthy so we need their harmful, overpriced products. Lots of correlations assembled, lacking proof of causality, to scare us. 

Meanwhile,  we have no antibiotics against the new resistant bacteria, because the drug companies can't make enough money pushing antibiotics. Time for the government to start giving these vermin orders or face confiscation.

Wonderbro
Wonderbro

"They recognize, however, that their conclusions are based on relatively few studies, since few trials have addressed the question of whether supplements can prevent disease in healthy people."

In other words, the same standard of "evidence" they applied to the question of whether there's enough evidence to show whether vitamin supplementation is useful for healthy people, when applied to their own work, says that there's not enough evidence for these authors to come to any conclusion at all.

This "study" exploits a common pseudoscience fallacy of tautology using negatives -- the absence of evidence -- that is frequently found in bad medical studies that promote institutional medical interests, and often associated with trying to bash alternative (wellness) practices.  It basically comes down to saying that the issue hasn't been studied by the medical community, so based on the fact that there's not enough "evidence" (implicitly synonymous with "double-blind clinical trials"), the authors go on to say that there's no evidence that the alternative health practice has any benefit.  Then some reporters write it up as "don't use this" or "don't expect any benefit from that".  This recycling of the "hasn't been researched by medical community therefore there's no evidence it works" tautology repeats itself on a regular basis, so that there's an article out every quarter or so reporting on another reputable study that reports there's still "no evidence".

They might as well just regularly paste articles reporting that the medical community hasn't expended resources researching alternative health practices in the way it has expended resources researching conventional medical interventions, and that hasn't changed since the last time they posted an article that there's still not been enough work done on the specific issues since the last article to draw any conclusions at all.

ziconater
ziconater

When I take Fish Oil, my tryglicrides and blood pressure are back to normal, as well as having no joint pain. So... according to this article, I should NOT take Fish Oil and hope for the best.

Got it... thanks

CheyTor
CheyTor

In essence, you're telling me vitamin pills are expensive pieces of candy?

JessicaWaite
JessicaWaite

Vitamins work for me. I have PCOS and vitamins are the only thing that regulates my period.


DondMass
DondMass

Then it was simply by chance that my blood pressure leveled out naturally, from 148 over 90 to 112 over 70, and that it had nothing to do with the Omega-3 fish oil supplements I began taking?

WienersPeener
WienersPeener

"beta carotene use contributed to an increased risk of lung cancer in smokers."

So this means that doctors should advise smokers to remove all carrots and tomatoes from their diet, right? Come on. There are just too many variables that are not properly controlled for in these studies. One thing I'll agree with, it is almost assuredly better to get the vitamins naturally through healthy foods than it is taking them through some sort of processed pill form. I don't need a study to tell me that salmon is good for me, I can FEEL the difference within minutes of eating it. Same thing goes for spinach and other super-foods. Conversely, after I eat at McDonalds or KFC my body immediately lets me know that was not a healthy choice. I feel like I just stashed a bag full of bricks in my gut.

TomYoung
TomYoung

TIME is losing credibility. This article is is meant to shock and mislead, not inform. The author should be fired.

JustinRobertLizik
JustinRobertLizik

This article is completely useless considering it has no conclusion and that it comes from a biased source, namely the U.S. government... nice journalism Alexandra Sifferlin!

ruthgfeldman
ruthgfeldman

I've read some "research", on vitamins and supplements, paid for by pharmaceutical companies.  The studies are poorly done and poorly reported. I remember one study that proved calcium supplements were of no use.  There was no strictness on whether or not the subjects actually took the calcium regularly. Moreover the subjects were not asked to also take vitamin D or K.  What would be the use of taking calcium without the necessary supplements? There was a study on vitamin E that "proved" E was dangerous to take. It was funded by two pharmaceutical companies  and a company with "natural" in its name that could not be found.  They used only artificial, Alpha tocopherol  which has been known as unhealthy to use if other tocopherols, delta, gamma, or beta, are not added to it. They then publicized that people should not take vitamin E. because of the results of their poorly done research.  I don't trust such research by government agencies since their "convened experts" might have their own agendas.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

We seem to have a lot of Task Forces and not enough Tasks Accomplished.

gortleib
gortleib

" A panel of experts convened by the government, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF)

Lol...yeah, I'm definitely gonna believe these idiots.

PhillyCannabis
PhillyCannabis

I learned long ago that taking supplements is B.S. It's marketing based on fear. Great strategy if you are a marketer. But if you see what corporations really care about is the bottom line and their investors. Not people. 

My suggestion just eat real whole foods. Meats, fish, cheese, eggs, vegetables, nuts. Some fruit and legumes. Eliminate coffee, wheat, sugar, and anything processed inlcuding condiments. 

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@bsardi The RDAs are the average of the 98th percentile of need for adult males and the 98th percentile of need for adult females. In other words, it covers, literally, 98% of the population. And even then, most people get multiple times the RDA.

If what you claimed were true, there'd be an epidemic of scurvy, pellagra, and beriberi in America. There isn't.

RebeccaGarzaHeck
RebeccaGarzaHeck

@bsardi You are absolutely right and thank you for saying this better than I can.  The government is trying to get people to stop the vitamins/supplements because then the drug companies will make even more profits and can keep going with their big donations for politicians.  Also even if you eat super healthy like I do (vegan) that is still not enough because our food in grown with pesticides, and depleted soil and does NOT have the nutritional value it used to in our parents generation.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@Wonderbro Oh, dude, so close. You would have to actually have evidence firsthand before you can say Treatment X cures Disease X'. If anything, I've seen the medical community be too good to the vitamin pill industry, with hundreds of studies to prove a vitamin might treat a disease, all of which turn up negative. But you see, I'm not going to bet my health on the wisdom of your "inconclusive results" because, oh yeah, I can bet it on conclusive results instead.

And I've seen vitamin C pills with 30 g of vitamin C, or as much as 60 oranges. That ain't natural, but it's marketed as such. (Pauling would've said even that was a "low" dose of vitamin C, opting for a more typical dose of 80 g.)

MichaelMorning
MichaelMorning

@Wonderbro -- very true. Further, these same companies create many "studies" that are designed to fail (that is, they already know the outcome, so they structure the "study" accordingly). A perfect example were some of the recent studies released that said vitamin D was ineffectual and people taking it were basically throwing away money.

However, the deception within the study came about from the fact that it was designed around 400IU per day of vitamin D, which has been shown in numerous other studies to be an ineffective dose. Just like most pharmaceuticals, many natural substances are "dose dependent" - that is, it takes a certain amount to garner the expected outcomes. Taking less may not produce any noticeable result.

In fact, this same study didn't find that vitamin D was ineffective, just that 400IU per day was ineffective. But that didn't stop ever newspaper and blogger from shouting from the rooftops that vitamin D was not something you should be spending your money on - and this despite the well-documented fact that 4000-5000IU per day IS extremely effective as a cancer fighter, immune booster, etc.

Said another way, you would never take half the recommended dosage of Tylenol to cure a headache and then complain that it doesn't work. You'd naturally understand that it takes a certain amount to illicit the expected results. Why would natural supplements be any different?

WalterHeisenberg
WalterHeisenberg

@Wonderbro If I had the same fluency in the english language as you, I would have written exactly what you did, word by word!

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@JessicaWaite Now how the hell would that even work? Unless there's also a "vitamins cause breast cancer" study that I'm unaware of. (Seeing as your period is regulated by estrogens.)

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@WienersPeener We're not talking about removing all carrots. The difference between placebo, medicine, and poison is a matter of dosage.

Also, the idea of it immediately working? Metabolism does not work that way./morbo

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@PhillyCannabis Agree with most of that, though coffee isn't really bad for you unless you're pregnant (My mother couldn't stand the stuff when she was pregnant.); wheat is only bad for you if you have celiac disease; and sugar is only bad for you in excess. (Note, however, that one can of soda qualifies as excess.)

MichaelMorning
MichaelMorning

@PhillyCannabis -- While I agree with some of your points, you're missing the central issue surrounding vitamins: They work! The drug companies sponsor most of these studies that purport that natural substances aren't worth using. Then they patent a portion of a natural substance so they can sell it as a drug  (you can't patent a natural substance, so there is no real money in selling them compared to the billions that can be made from prescription drugs). The FDA no longer even pretends that it's working for the consumer. Their own internal documents state very clearly that they feel their task is to support industry.

So while, yes, you can (and should) get the bulk of your vitamins and nutrition from good, whole, organic foods and naturally-raised meat, most people will not garner optimal nutrient levels without some amount of supplementation. The best example of this is vitamin D; most Americans are deficient and very few reach the minimum recommended blood level of 50ng/ml.

Finally, eliminating coffee is unnecessary; it contains numerous beneficial compounds with extensive documentation for its effectiveness. If you don't tolerate caffeine very well, then drink natural decaf.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@MichaelMorning @Wonderbro Quite the opposite really. Supplement companies are the same companies as the pharmaceutical industry. It's sort of like how that one goth store at the mall is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch because, oh yeah, you remind me of a moody teenager who doesn't realize that moodiness is a side effect of puberty.

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@MichaelMorning @PhillyCannabis [citation REALLY needed] here. Unless there's a serious epidemic of scurvy in America that no epidemiological journal has reported on. (And note that every time you buy vitamins, it makes it harder for someone who actually might have scurvy to get them.)

aliberaldoseofskepticism
aliberaldoseofskepticism

@MichaelMorning @PhillyCannabis That's not how it works. First, drug companies and supplement companies are the same companies, so your argument there would be flawed even if it weren't the ad hominem fallacy. Secondly, you can patent using a natural substance in a novel way; after all, every invention ever is just using a natural substance in a novel way.

The FDA is if anything impotent because of the supplement industry. Look up DSHEA. The supplement industry is completely unregulated due to that. (The FDA has a similar difficulty regulating tobacco, mostly because any regulation of tobacco would mean a ban: It has no medical use, and is clearly linked to cancer of the lung, mouth, and throat. So Congress doesn't let the FDA regulate tobacco.)

Hilariously, I have dark skin (I'm Oglala Sioux.), and I don't have trouble getting enough vitamin D. I've also never taken a vitamin pill in my life.

Also, what about those of us, like myself and Dr Ben Goldacre, who criticize the supplement industry and the drug industry? Your bifurcation fallacy is amusing.

PhillyCannabis
PhillyCannabis

@MichaelMorning @PhillyCannabis I couldn't disagree with you more. Humans beings evolved without any of these supplements. Coffee contains mycotoxins that make people feel bad. 

Eat, drink water, make love, walk and play in the sun, laugh and be creative. 

Everything else is nonsense.

goldengrain
goldengrain

@PhillyCannabis @MichaelMorning The food we find at the marketplace today is not the food we evolved on.  You cannot be serious?  

Produce has been modified to ship more easily, to look prettier.  Sadly, the flavor and nutrients have been diminished in the process.  

Protein sources are fed substances to fatten them up, to mature them more quickly.  The flavor in our meats is also diminished, perhaps the nutritive quality has also lessened. 

Modern farming techniques can now feed MORE people, but they are not being fed BETTER.