Ground Hog’s Day at The New York Times: Supplements Edition

I did a short and sweet post the other day highlighting what I thought was a pretty good list: 11 Universal Truths in Nutrition That People Actually Agree on. I mentioned one minor quibble, and hit the publish button before calling it a day. But . . . there was one item on the list that I had a bigger issue with, but didn’t have the energy to make a Federal case out of. Number eight: Supplements Can Not Compensate For an Unhealthy Diet

I don’t think the statement goes far enough. There has been an avalanche of studies in recent years that show harm from or ineffectiveness of supplements, and yet the message never seems to sink in. It seemed like an opportunity to do another Groundhog’s Day post and a google search did not disappoint.

Beginning in 1998, but concentrated in the last six years, there has been a torrent of negative reporting in The New York Times on vitamin supplements. A handful of studies come up multiple times, but they are robust studies and the smaller ones never seem to end. Bear in mind, included in all the grim news, there were studies that did show benefit, but they tended to relate to people with existing health conditions. In that light, I’d say it makes sense to avoid supplements unless your doctor prescribes them. Even then, I’d want to see the research.

Seems a lot easier just to eat a few more fruits and vegetables.
Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 8.16.09 PMTaking Too Much Vitamin C Can Be Dangerous, Study Finds | Jane Brody | 9 April 1998

But the British researchers, chemical pathologists at the University of Leicester, found in a six-week study of 30 healthy men and women that a daily 500-milligram supplement of vitamin C had pro-oxidant as well as antioxidant effects on the genetic material DNA. The researchers found that at the 500-milligram level, vitamin C promoted genetic damage by free radicals to a part of the DNA, the adenine bases, that had not previously been measured in studies of the vitamin’s oxidative properties.

Disappointing News on Vitamin E and Selenium | Tara Parker-Pope | 28 October 2008

The SELECT trial, which stands for the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial, was studying whether selenium and vitamin E, either alone or in combination, could lower a man’s risk for prostate cancer. More than 35,000 men were taking part, making it one of the largest and best studies of a vitamin or supplement.

But the National Cancer Institute announced Monday that the trial, which was scheduled to end in 2011 after seven years, is being halted early. A review of the data shows no benefit in using the supplements to prevent prostate cancer. In addition, slightly more users of vitamin E were getting prostate cancer, and slightly more selenium-only users were developing diabetes.

 

News Keeps Getting Worse for Vitamins | Tara Parker-Pope | 20 November 2008

This week, researchers reported the disappointing results from a large clinical trial of almost 15,000 male doctors taking vitamins E and C for a decade. The study showed no meaningful effect on cancer rates.

Another recent study found no benefit of vitamins E and C for heart disease.

In October, a major trial studying whether vitamin E and selenium could lower a man’s risk for prostate cancer ended amidst worries that the treatments may do more harm than good.

And recently, doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York warned that vitamin C seems to protect not just healthy cells but cancer cells, too.

. . . A Johns Hopkins School of Medicine review of 19 vitamin E clinical trials of more than 135,000 people showed high doses of vitamin E (greater than 400 IUs) increased a person’s risk for dying during the study period by 4 percent. Taking vitamin E with other vitamins and minerals resulted in a 6 percent higher risk of dying. Another study of daily vitamin E showed vitamin E takers had a 13 percent higher risk for heart failure.

The Journal of Clinical Oncology published a study of 540 patients with head and neck cancer who were being treated with radiation therapy. Vitamin E reduced side effects, but cancer recurrence rates among the vitamin users were higher, although the increase didn’t reach statistical significance.

A 1994 Finland study of smokers taking 20 milligrams a day of beta carotene showed an 18 percent higher incidence of lung cancer among beta carotene users. In 1996, a study called Caret looked at beta carotene and vitamin A use among smokers and workers exposed to asbestos, but the study was stopped when the vitamin users showed a 28 percent higher risk for lung cancer and a 26 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease.

A 2002 Harvard study of more than 72,000 nurses showed that those who consumed high levels of vitamin A from foods, multivitamins and supplements had a 48 percent higher risk for hip fractures than nurses who had the lowest intake of vitamin A.

. . . In October 2004, Copenhagen researchers reviewed seven randomized trials of beta carotene, selenium and vitamins A, C and E (alone or in combination) in colon, esophageal, gastric, pancreatic and liver cancer. The antioxidant users had a 6 percent higher death rate than placebo users.

Two studies presented to the American College of Cardiology in 2006 showed that vitamin B doesn’t prevent heart attacks, leading The New England Journal of Medicine to say that the consistency of the results “leads to the unequivocal conclusion” that the vitamins don’t help patients with established vascular disease.

More Evidence Against Vitamin Use Tara Parker-Pope | 11 October 2011

A study of vitamin E and selenium use among 35,000 men found that the vitamin users had a slightly higher risk of developing prostate cancer, according to a report published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association. A separate study of 38,000 women in Iowa found a higher risk of dying during a 19-year period among older women who used multivitamins and other supplements compared with women who did not, according to a new report in The Archives of Internal Medicine.

Why Vitamins May Be Bad for Your Workout | Gretchen Reynolds | 12 February 2012

The runners who had swallowed the placebo pills showed robust increases of biochemical markers that are known to goose the creation of mitochondria, the tiny structures within cells that generate energy, in cells in their bloodstream and muscles. More mitochondria, especially in muscle cells, means more energy and, by and large, better health and fitness. The creation of new mitochondria is, in fact, generally held to be one of the most important effects of exercise.

But the volunteers who had consumed the antioxidants had significantly lower levels of the markers related to mitochondrial creation.

Curbing the Enthusiasm on Daily Multivitamins | Roni Caryn Rabin | 22 October 2012

A review by the National Institutes of Health in 2006 concluded that evidence was “insufficient to prove the presence or absence of benefits from use of multivitamin and mineral supplements.” More recently, the Institute of Medicine cautioned people on vitamin D and calcium supplements, saying that most healthy adults do not need them and that high doses of calcium have been linked to kidney stones and heart disease and that high doses of vitamin D may also be harmful.


Thinking Twice About Calcium Supplements
| Jane Brody | 8 April 2013

In February, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that postmenopausal women refrain from taking supplemental calcium and vitamin D. After reviewing more than 135 studies, the task force said there was little evidence that these supplements prevent fractures in healthy women.

Moreover, several studies have linked calcium supplements to an increased risk of heart attacks and death from cardiovascular disease. Others have found no effect, depending on the population studied and when calcium supplementation was begun.


Don’t Take Your Vitamins
| Paul Offit | 8 June 2013

In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1994, 29,000 Finnish men, all smokers, had been given daily vitamin E, beta carotene, both or a placebo. The study found that those who had taken beta carotene for five to eight years were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease.

Two years later the same journal published another study on vitamin supplements. In it, 18,000 people who were at an increased risk of lung cancer because of asbestos exposure or smoking received a combination of vitamin A and beta carotene, or a placebo. Investigators stopped the study when they found that the risk of death from lung cancer for those who took the vitamins was 46 percent higher.

Then, in 2004, a review of 14 randomized trials for the Cochrane Database found that the supplemental vitamins A, C, E and beta carotene, and a mineral, selenium, taken to prevent intestinal cancers, actually increased mortality.

Another review, published in 2005 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that in 19 trials of nearly 136,000 people, supplemental vitamin E increased mortality. Also that year, a study of people with vascular disease or diabetes found that vitamin E increased the risk of heart failure. And in 2011, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association tied vitamin E supplements to an increased risk of prostate cancer.

Finally, last year, a Cochrane review found that “beta carotene and vitamin E seem to increase mortality, and so may higher doses of vitamin A.”


Skip the Supplements
| Paul Offit | 15 December 2013

In 2003, researchers tested “ayurvedic” remedies from health food stores throughout Boston. They found that 20 percent contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury or arsenic.

In 2008, two products were pulled off the market because they were found to contain around 200 times more selenium (an element that some believe can help prevent cancer) than their labels said. People who ingested these products developed hair loss, muscle cramps, diarrhea, joint pain, fatigue and blisters.

Last summer, vitamins and minerals made by Purity First Health Products in Farmingdale, N.Y., were found to contain two powerful anabolic steroids. Some of the women who took them developed masculinizing symptoms like lower voices and fewer menstrual periods.

Last month, researchers in Ontario found that popular herbal products like those labeled St. John’s wort and ginkgo biloba often contained completely different herbs or contaminants, some of which could be quite dangerous.

The F.D.A. estimates that approximately 50,000 adverse reactions to dietary supplements occur every year. And yet few consumers know this.

Thyroid Supplements With a Kick Roni Caryn Rabin | 20 January 2014

Many people with vague symptoms like these turn to dietary supplements that promise to jump-start metabolism by bolstering their thyroids with a mix of vitamins and minerals. Bladderwrack seaweed, iodine and an herb called ashwagondha are among the common ingredients.

But these over-the-counter products may also contain something that’s not so natural: thyroid hormones that should only be dispensed by prescription. Researchers who tested 10 popular thyroid-boosting products sold online found that nine contained the hormones thyroxine (T4) or triiodothyronine (T3), sometimes both.

More:
Study Questions Benefit of Extra Vitamin D | Nicholas Bakalar | 22 October 2012
No Vitamin D and Calcium for Older Bones | Anahad O’Connor | 25 February 2013
Omega-3s Don’t Provide Extra Eye Protection | Anahad O’Connor | 6 May 2013
Vitamin D Ineffective for Preventing Osteoporosis | Nicholas Bakalar | 17 October 2013
Limits of Vitamin D Supplements | Nicholas Bakalar | 11 December 2013
Should We Toss Our Vitamin Pills? | Roni Caryn Rabin | 16 December 2013

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About Marc Brazeau

Free lance cultural attaché. Writing at REALFOOD.ORG.

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