Vitamins don’t work: the real story behind the headlines

Lynne McTaggart

Wherever you were in the world before Christmas, you undoubtedly saw the newspaper headlines claiming ‘experts say ‘vitamin pills are a waste of money’.  Although the ordinary media had a field day with this, including the same London Times journalist who’d a field day bashing WDDTY twice last autumn, their reporting, as usual, lacked any sort of critical assessment of who the experts are and why they may be making these claims.


Wherever you were in the world before Christmas, you undoubtedly saw the newspaper headlines claiming ‘experts say ‘vitamin pills are a waste of money’.  Although the ordinary media had a field day with this, including the same London Times journalist who’d a field day bashing WDDTY twice last autumn, their reporting, as usual, lacked any sort of critical assessment of who the experts are and why they may be making these claims. 

These so-called experts – many of them scientists with a history of vitamin bashing − got together, ostensibly to help the US Preventive Services Task Force to update its recommendations on vitamin supplements, and wrote an opinion piece for the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM), claiming that vitamins don’t work.  This was accompanied with three reviews of past studies.  

One such review examined 26 studies to see if taking the usual doses of multi- vitamins and minerals could be linked to prevention of death from any cause, including cancer and heart disease; the second focused on whether taking a single multivitamin could lower further cardiovascular events among those who’d had a heart attack; and the third studied whether a single multivitamin could reduce cognitive decline.

So the studies required that single multivitamins change the entire course of a person’s medical history, regardless of lifestyle, even though treatment times were short and follow up limited to under 10 years.

Not surprisingly, the answer to each of the questions posed by the three studies was no - single low-dose multivitamins can’t perform the miraculous.  And this negative resulted afforded the experts an opportunity to vent their spleen over natural medicine.

These are the kinds of questions that even doctors of nutritional medicine would never ask. Those who prescribe nutriceuticals in their practices understand that human beings are biochemically individual, and that handing everyone the same single low-dose pill is not enough to make a life-or-death difference, whereas an individual diet and supplement program can.

In other words, vitamins got slated for not being what no one claims they are.

These were, as the Alliance for Natural Health put it, studies designed to fail. All the trials included in the biggest review, for instance, involved supplements at levels below the US’s Tolerable Upper Levels  (and well below those used by doctors of nutritional medicine), and all involved cheap and cheerful synthetic supplements produced by the pharmaceutical industry and sold in places like Boots and Walmarts.

Absent were high dose products from small innovative companies, ‘food state’ vitamins or those sold in health shops and recommended by nutritional practitioners.

If any sort of benefit was shown in individual studies, the effect of ‘meta-analyses’ like these, with diverse populations and supplement programmes, was to flatten it out.

The study authors also showed bias in the studies they chose to include. Older studies showing negative effects with vitamin E and betacarotene were allowed in, for instance, even though their results have been disputed by newer studies.

Despite these obvious limitations, there was one modest, albeit significant benefit.  Taking a multivitamin for 10 years lowered male cancer risk by 8 per cent (Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(12):824-834-834. This same benefit wasn’t found in women, but that appears to be because no long-term studies have been carried out asking that question.

Furthermore, two studies examining vitamin D’s role in reducing heart disease showed a positive effect over just five years.

This benefit was not reported in the media. Why, after all, ruin a good story?

Also absent from these studies and the media reporting about them were the many other proven benefits even from low-dose vitamins, such as boosts to the immune system, increased glucose tolerance, and improved energy levels, cognition, mental alertness and athletic performance − all benefits already scientifically demonstrated to the satisfaction of the stringent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 

The scientists writing the editorial concluded that people don’t need extra supplements because they get everything they need from food. And of course, they’re right in a sense; we could get all our nutrients from food − if we grew organic fruit and veg in our backyards on highly fertile, organic soil, and if we reared the free range animals or fish we regularly ate in organic and non-polluted conditions.

But, as mountain of evidence now shows, modern, intensely farmed food has a fraction of the nutrients it once did. Most of today’s fruit and veg is so laden with fertilizers and pesticides that this in itself is having a deleterious effect on human health.

The latest research shows that, far from being healthful, our food highly processed and over fe
rtilized food is itself causing epidemics of type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Vitamins are necessary to counteract the damage that industrialization has wreaked upon food.

And that is the story that should be making the headlines, not the trumped up charges of a few vitamin bashers with an obvious agenda.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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