Science Again Discredits the Supplement Fairy Tale

November 13, 2012 in Foodland, Nutrition, Nutritionism, Uncategorized by Joyce Bunderson

It is such a pervasive and appealing fairly tale.  A small handful of pills, taken daily, can substitute for the thousands of nutrients in fruits and vegetables. The pills are not cheap, but they are ever so much faster to prepare and get down than the whole foods.  Whole foods need to be shopped for, purchased, stored only so long before they spoil, prepared and cooked – it all takes time for people who believe they are far too busy to take care of their health by proper diet and exercise.

The Supplement Industry tells the fairy tale in such an appealing way.  Their standard practice is to latch onto the latest nutrient that hits the press and gets a lot of publicity.  Maybe it’s omega 3 fatty acids, or beta-carotene, or lycopene.  The very names invoke the magic of science, which has discovered some of the small molecules within whole foods that really make the difference.  Now the lie of nutritionism can be invoked like a magical incantation. Say the scientific words loudly in the ads and on the package.  Like the magician’s illusion, doesn’t it almost seem believable that by processing out the few recognizable named nutrients in a complex food having thousands of nutrients -- nutrients that interact with your system in unknown ways, and putting those few nutrients in a pill or candy or drink, you can have all the benefits from the whole food that really matter? Apparently many consumers want to believe it.

Supplement sales flew under the radar for years. Big Science did not challenge the fairy-tale claims; although the FDA frequently chastened some companies’ outrageous claims and required them to stop. But the terrible state of American public health has changed that.  Now an increasing number of large scientific studies are repeatedly debunking the nutritionism myths.  Howard Sesso, ScD, MPH is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston. After a recent large study he stated: “There’s no substitute for a heart-healthy diet and exercise.” He was joined by another strong voice: associate professor and cardiologist at Harvard School of Public Health, Dariush Mozaffarian MD. His summary: “The danger of taking a multivitamin leads you to think [you] don’t need to do the other lifestyle things that are important.” The “quick fix” of supplement taking does not replace a healthy lifestyle.

If you haven’t done so, you might take time to read about this study.  It was announced at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting last week and published online for free in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). In short, the study was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 14,641 male US physicians for over eleven years (very short version. It was a very well designed study. It showed that taking daily multivitamins did not reduce major cardiovascular events, myocardial infractions (heart attacks), strokes, and cardiovascular disease. Professors Sesso was one of the authors of the study.

Despite the growing body of evidence, too many people want to believe the fairy tale of nutritionism.  They want to believe that they can pop a pill and replace healthy food and exercise. I have to admit, it would be nice, if it were true, but it’s not; I gave up fairy tales a long time ago. But it appears that many people are living their lives as if they still believe in fairy tales. Looking at the $28 billion annual sales per year on supplements, including vitamins, minerals, and herbs shows that the fairy tales are alive and well.

The supplement industry has data showing that this is true. A study from the vitamin industry, a Vitamin Shoppe survey, revealed that 93% of vitamin users are more confident about their health when taking dietary supplements. If 93% are more confident, even without evidence, then it’s likely that they will continue to believe the fairly tale. They want to believe it for practical reasons. A Registered Dietician based in New York City, Sharon Richter, is reported to have commented on this study result: “It’s difficult for most people to consume the recommended daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially while juggling work and family. “These findings reaffirm how important many feel it is to maintain a vitamin or supplement regimen to ensure your body is getting all the nutrients needed on a daily basis.” Yes, modern life – managing work and family is challenging, but supplements do not ensure anything except that they are profitable for the industry, and they fit in with our wishful thinking. Should a mother or father be led to feel secure in nourishing a growing child by handing out multivitamins? My question to Ms. Richter is: Do you truly believe that you are replacing fruits and vegetables’ hundred of nutrients with a vitamin/mineral tablet or gummy vitamin? It’s nonsense! Not to mention that sometimes, taking a supplement has a risk all of its own. You can’t shrink fruits and vegetables into to a few vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients – it’s just not possible!

It’s fascinating to me that the trade groups for supplements can continue to peddle their supplements saying that they are a “basic and affordable insurance policy for overall wellness.” Insurance policy! What are supplements insuring? On second thought, this is a lot like an insurance policy Dr. Grandpa and I have recently stopped using – trip insurance.  We finally read enough of the small print to realize that there are so many exceptions that even if we had a loss, the company would never have anything but pennies on the dollar left to pay if we made a claim. Supplements are indeed like some kinds of insurance.  If it just happens that your body needed the few nutrients in the pills, there may be a few pennies worth of value, but the dollars of coverage you really need are found in the real foods, with their thousands of interacting nutrients, and in exercise.  A caution: Unlike the trip insurance, the supplements sometimes actually harm your health.

The FDA reports that there are more than 29,000 different nutritional supplements on the market. If I believed in nutritionism (and you know I don’t), I’d have limitless questions. How could we replace the thousands of nutrients that humans have evolved to rely on for millennia with a handful of tablets and capsules? Getting the trace phytonutrients available naturally in fruits and vegetables is, unfortunately, just not available; again, there are thousands of nutrients in fruits and vegetables.

Trying to raise my small voice against the colossal multi-billion dollar organized advertisements of the supplement industry is seemingly a waste of my time. Certainly, you can read about some of the harmful, dangerous, controversial, and ineffective outcomes for supplements. Of course, I can’t write about 29,000 different nutritional supplements; but I’ve discovered that UC Berkeley publishes a Wellness Report on dietary Supplements. You can review it for free and if you decide to purchase it, it is moderately priced. You can look up the supplements that you are considering taking and discover which ones do you more harm than good. It’s really nice to have an affordable document available to the general public to facilitate decision-making. At least, you’d be less likely to take something that could seriously harm you.

Vitamins and other supplements are pretty engrained in our society.  Herbal treatments have a long history. We use a small number of them in this household, originally prescribed or advised, but because of my training and long habits, I monitor the research continually and discuss it with Dr. Grandpa.  We have stopped more than we take. My advice is not to stop taking all supplements and vitamins, as like ours, your health professionals may actually be prescribing or advising them. The result of accumulating research, however, is that the younger health professional, more up on the latest research, will be less likely to do so in the future.

My urgent appeal to you is not to shun and stop taking all supplements.  Please, please, however, do not think that they are substitutes for a good diet, with reliance on fruits, vegetables, and whole-grains.  Do not think supplements will give you any of the benefits of a good exercise program.  Do not believe that they will substitute for a lack of adequate sleep. Do not think that they represent any kind of insurance policy.

Best wishes, remember, Good Health Can Be Yummy, and an active life can be most rewarding and enjoyable. We can enjoy our fairly tales in small measure, so long as we first attend to what really matters.