The Vitamin Myth

[Hat tip to Carlos Pruitt for pointing me at the Guardian article]

PillsA rather pervasive myth within our modern culture is the belief that popping Vitamin supplements gives you a distinct health advantage, but this is not true and is instead a modern myth.

I’m no exception and in my time I’ve been rather guilty of reaching for the Vitamin C in response to any hint of a sniffle starting to emerge. So what actually happens?, if you don’t take Vitamin C for a cold then it will last about 3 days, but on the other hand if you do, then the duration of your cold will be compressed into about … 3 days.

Why do we know this? Well because of the more than 30 clinical trials with over 10,000 participants that have examined the effects of taking daily vitamin C in doses up to 2 g/day, and the conclusion from all this is that vitamin C does not prevent or treat the common cold … let me spell that out … “does not” … OK, got it? Alas no, studies be dammed, people still buy the stuff, and this is perhaps because there is a real effect, vitamin C consumption has been shown to decrease the duration of cold symptoms – but that is not the same as preventing a cold or affecting symptom severity.

Anyway … Dr Paul Offit, an American pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases and an expert on vaccines, immunology, and virology, has written a fascinating and well-researched article in the Guardian all about the prevailing vitamin myth (it is an extract from his latest book, details of that at the end). He writes …

Millions of people believe that taking daily vitamins makes them feel better and live longer.

… The problem with most vitamins is that they aren’t made inside the body; they’re available only in foods or supplements. So the question isn’t, “Do people need vitamins?” They do. The real questions are: “How much do they need?” and “Do they get enough in foods?”

OK, we know all that, however, the key concerns that Dr Offit proceeds to raise concerns what is known scientifically. In other words, we are not dealing with his opinion, we are dealing with established evidence-based facts …

In October 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer.

These findings weren’t new. Seven previous studies had already shown that, for certain groups, some vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease, and shortened lives.

I used to be a big vitamin guzzler myself, but the evidence changed my mind. In fact, I wrote about how Vitamins were just a complete waste about two years ago here and yet despite all the evidence, this billion dollar industry just keeps rolling forward. Dr Offit’s article identifies where it all came from and names one specific individual who started the modern fad – Linus Pauling. In his time he claimed mega-doses of Vitamin C cured and prevented the common cold, but when tested in proper double-blind trials it did not actually work. Pauling went on to claim cancer, heart disease, mental illness, pneumonia, hepatitis, polio, etc could all be cured by supplements, a claim that had no science behind it and has been dis-proven, the evidence is clear …

In 1994, the National Cancer Institute, in collaboration with Finland’s National Public Health Institute, studied 29,000 Finnish men, all long-term smokers over 50 years old. This group was chosen because they were at high risk of cancer and heart disease. Subjects were given vitamin E, beta-carotene, both or neither. The results were clear: those taking vitamins and supplements were more likely to die

And again …

In 1996, investigators from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle studied 18,000 people who, because they had been exposed to asbestos, were at increased risk of lung cancer. Again, subjects received vitamin A, beta-carotene, both or neither. Investigators ended the study abruptly when they realised that those who took vitamins and supplements were dying from cancer and heart disease at rates 28% and 17% higher, respectively, than those who didn’t.

And again …

In 2004, researchers from the University of Copenhagen reviewed 14 randomised trials involving more than 170,000 people who took vitamins A, C, E and beta-carotene to see whether antioxidants could prevent intestinal cancers. Again, antioxidants didn’t live up to the hype. The authors concluded: “We could not find evidence that antioxidant supplements can prevent gastrointestinal cancers; on the contrary, they seem to increase overall mortality.”

And again …

In 2005, researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine evaluated 19 studies involving more than 136,000 people and found an increased risk of death associated with supplemental vitamin E

And again …

In 2007, researchers from the National Cancer Institute examined 11,000 men who did or did not take multivitamins. Those who took multivitamins were twice as likely to die from advanced prostate cancer.

And again …

In 2008, a review of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did or did not receive supplemental antioxidants found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.

And again …

In October 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota evaluated 39,000 older women and found that those who took supplemental multivitamins, magnesium, zinc, copper and iron died at rates higher than those who didn’t.

So how many times do we have to do this for people to get the message … if you look above at the facts, then what does it tell you?

The article is long and has a lot more to say about many other supposed health products that will do you a considerable degree of harm, and so I do encourage you to read it all.

However, my favourite one liner that I cannot skip over just has to be this …

There’s a name for alternative medicines that works, it’s called medicine.” – Joe Schwarcz, professor of chemistry and the director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Canada

Well yes of course, there is no such thing as alternative medicine, there is only medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t.


The Guardian Article is an edited extract from his new book “Killing Us Softly: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine“, and it will be published on 20 June. Yes it is a book plug, but in this case it is one I can highly recommend and look forward to getting myself a copy.

Now interestingly enough, the book will also be available in the US, but with a slightly different title, a question instead of a statement, “Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine” to be published on 18 June. My guess is that somebody in marketing thinks people in the UK will be put off by “Magic”, or that perhaps those in the US will buy books with the word “magic” in the title.

1 thought on “The Vitamin Myth”

  1. Please research differences between “synthetic” and “whole plant” supplements.

    That 2g of Ascorbic Acid does not equal the extract from an Acerola Cherry.
    Its just a big blob of Vitamin C, with no phytonutrients. Your body cant make use of it.

    Its why the largest supplement company in the world organically farms plants, and turns them into supplements that contain all the nutrients the plant does.

    Its also why that same company turns over $5B a year, while the next largest turns over <$1B

    Its because they work.


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