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Vitamins are of no use – here we go again

Dr Ross Walker
5 July 2022

A recent study from a North-western University in the US published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at 84 studies of a variety of vitamin therapies and concluded that vitamins were a waste of money. The US Preventive Services Task Force (US PSTF) suggested that there was insufficient evidence that multivitamins, paired supplements or single supplements can prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer in otherwise healthy, non-pregnant adults.

The article then stated that beta carotene can possibly increase lung cancer risk and vitamin E was of no benefit.

It is estimated that in the US alone about $50 billion is spent per year on a variety of supplements. The researchers also suggested that if someone was vitamin deficient, they would benefit from taking supplements but we should obtain all of our vitamins, minerals and trace metals from good quality food.

They did however suggest that folic acid was useful in pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and also there is some evidence to suggest that elderly people may require oral calcium and vitamin D.

Firstly, let me make the point that I completely disagree with this analysis for the following reasons:

1) There's no doubt that we all should be consuming 2-3 pieces of fruit per day and 3-5 servings of vegetables per day (one serving is the equivalent of half a carrot). It is estimated that less than 10% of the population would ingest this amount of fruit and vegetables on a daily basis.

2) Those people who consume this amount of fruit and vegetables daily have the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer in the community.

3) It appears that this particular study has ignored the more long-term analyses of vitamin ingestion.

4) Most of the studies analysed were from the US where their supplements are made to Food standards. One study of 300 different companies' products revealed about 95% were either contaminated or did not contain what it states on the bottle. In Australia, our vitamins are made to Pharmaceutical grade and what it states on the bottle is actually in the bottle, with no contaminants.

5) It appears this analysis has completely ignored one of the largest and longest studies of multivitamins in the world which comes from Harvard University. The combination of the 'Nurses' health study' and the 'Male physicians' trial' has followed 180,000 people now for a total of 30 years and looked at a vast array of different health parameters. One subset of this very large and comprehensive study has reviewed the intake of multivitamins.

The use of multivitamins in the male component of the trial showed no benefit up to 10 years but when the data was analysed at 10 years there was an 8% reduction in cataracts and common cancers. In the female component at 15 years, there was a 75% reduction in bowel cancer, a 25% reduction in breast cancer and a 23% reduction in cardiovascular disease purely from taking a multivitamin on a daily basis.

When the data in the males was analysed at 20 years there was a 44% reduction in cardiovascular disease.

Although, Homo sapiens are not a particularly compliant species and there wouldn't be too many people who are disciplined enough to take a multivitamin on a daily basis for such a prolonged period of time.

The study was performed in the Boston area which is a much more affluent part of America where they tend to eat better food and have more regular exercise than for example, a place like Iowa. An Iowa study that examined 39,000 women for 19 years showed no benefit from taking a multivitamin on a daily basis.

The take-home message here is that we are talking about supplements, not replacements, for a healthy lifestyle. Many years ago an analysis was made of a variety of vitamins taken by about 1 million people over a number of years showing that there was a reasonable benefit from taking a multivitamin in addition to a healthy lifestyle but this benefit was negated in obese people and those who smoked.

The beta-carotene story is very interesting and this is from a study that was published in 1994 in Finland which looked at the use of synthetic beta carotene 20mg daily for up to eight years and showed a slight increase in lung cancer. The same study used synthetic vitamin E, 50 I.U. and showed a slight trend toward reduced prostate cancer in 29,000 male Finnish smokers.

The message here is not to avoid natural supplements but firstly not to smoke and secondly don't take poor-quality synthetic vitamins which were used in the study. Despite that, the current analysis still uses data from this very flawed study that was performed close to 30 years ago.

Even worse with the comments regarding vitamin E which were basically based on an analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2004 by researcher Professor Edgar Miller where he suggested that vitamin E was of no use and possibly could cause harm. This was an analysis of 11 different trials of vitamin E, on average 400 international units daily where the vast majority of these trials used synthetic vitamin E and typically vitamin E in isolation. In the three trials that did combine vitamin E without the supplements, the vitamin E was all synthetic.

There have only been two trials in the history of evidence-based medicine using natural vitamin E combined with vitamin C and both trials showed a 25% reduction in the progression of atherosclerosis in the carotid arteries. This is just by taking simple, harmless supplements.

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