1 November 2011

Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

Nicole Senior

Myth: Taking vitamin supplements make you healthier
Fact: Supplements are only helpful to cover deficiencies and only paper over the cracks of a poor diet. There are some health risks attached to popping nutrient pills.
This month’s topic came about after a study was published in the well-respected journal Archives of Internal Medicine that found women who took multivitamins were actually at increased risk of dying compared to those who didn’t. The researchers followed 39,000 older American women participating in the US Women’s Health Study between 1986 and 2008, and arrived at this startling conclusion after accounting for the usual lifestyle factors such as body weight, smoking, alcohol and exercise levels. They also found taking some individual nutrient supplements was risky, namely vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc and copper. On the plus side, they found taking calcium reduced risk. This is not the first study to find that taking vitamins and minerals in supplement form is not as healthy as it seems: a meta-analysis and systematic review of 68 randomised trials in JAMA found increased risk of dying from supplemental beta-carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E.

Vitamin tablets

Vitamins and mineral supplements are a massive global business and have a done a great job in convincing those of us concerned about our health that popping vitamins daily is a good idea, just in case. However research has demonstrated that people who regularly take nutrient supplements are least likely to need them. It’s the ‘worried well’ who are filling the coffers of supplement marketers. As many vitamins are water-soluble and excess is excreted: they are simply creating brightly coloured, nutrient-charged urine. Fat-soluble nutrients (e.g. vitamins A, D, E) can actually build up in the body to toxic levels.

But supplements are not all bad. Sometimes they are a good idea: for example taking folate if planning a pregnancy, calcium if don’t eat dairy, iron if you are female and vegetarian, vitamin D if you’re deficient, or fish oil if you don’t eat seafood. Supplements can be very beneficial for vulnerable groups such as the frail elderly and others who for medical reasons struggle to eat a nutritious diet. But as a general health tonic, forget it: you’re better off spending money on eating better.

Food is complex: there are thousands of phytochemicals in plant foods we haven’t even named yet, and more bio-active substances in animal foods being discovered all the time. No doubt there are synergies between nutrients and other substances in food we can only speculate about at this point in time. It really is rather arrogant of us to expect we can replicate the goodness in food and sell it in a bottle. So if you’re keen to boost your health and wellbeing, skip the vitamin store and head straight to the food market. You can get all you need and more from two fruit, five veggies, legumes, wholegrain and low GI grain foods, lean meat, eggs, poultry and seafood, reduced fat dairy, oils, spreads, nuts and seeds. If you feel you’re diet is inadequate see a dietitian (APD/RD) to find out if you need to take supplements, which ones, and how much to reduce the risk of harm and wasted money.

Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and author of Eat to Beat Cholesterol, Heart Food and Belly Busting for Blokes.


Anonymous said...

Dr Steven R Gundry, author of Dr. Gundry's diet revolution, and the entire medical staff of Life Extension would not agree with you. My sister and mother, who are registered dietitians and who have had to use vitamins to deal with certain health issues would not agree with you either. Please go to www.lef.org and to Dr. Gundry's site to update your knowledge base. The facile method that certain vitamins get slagged in the media is clearly explained by scholarly papers by physicians at lef.org. We have ADHD kids who did not need drugs, just vitamin supplements that boosted their brain chemicals, in order to succeed in high school and university, in professional level courses, i.e. Engineering. Removing gluten, colours, sugar, and a high protein diet works well, along with doses of supplements to support brain function. The difference is night and day. Please don't slag supplements without doing proper research.

Anonymous said...

I think the researchers did not know the causes of death in those researched. For all they knew their subjects could have been run over by many buses! Correlation is not cause.

Anonymous said...

This research as they have found it is pretty dodgy ! everyone knows you dont take iron unless you need it. But the facts are our foods do not always contain the nutrients in the first place, ie soils deficient in selenium. The other fact is even if you are one of the rare people who eats the perfect diet you then need to have perfect digestive processes !! The real issue is the quality of nutrtional supplements , most of them dont work for various reasons, one being bioavailability, however the excellent supplements do work, Im proof of that, as a 50 plus female i will continue taking high quality supplements !

Beatrice Rabkin said...

This is the reason why people should go to nutritional therapists for advice on how to take vitamins. However everyone should take a multivitamin, and your understanding of the meta-analysis is in line with BIG pharma would like you to believe, how gullible you are. Just because dietitians are not allowed to prescribe supplements doe snot mean they are bad!! If you were not so dangerous you would be laughable.

Anonymous said...

A blood test showed that I had extremely low iron levels and was advised to take an iron suppliment with a range of B vitamins. All other tested blood levels were completely average. I thought I'd take a multi vitamin with minerals to cover all the angles, even though I eat a 75% healthy diet. Three months later a new blood test revealed a very high cholestrol/triglyceride level and thyroid (T4 and TSH) levels gone to pot!
The extra iodine had thrown out the perfect balance and could have done long term damage if I had continued taking unnecessary supplements.
I still eat the same but stick to the iron and B vits only and my latest blood test was back to normal

Helen Wenley said...

This research has been proven to be untrue by the ANH http://www.naturalnews.com/034008_vitamins_safety.html.

I am in my late fifties and I am living proof that taking advanced quality nutritional supplements is keeping me in true health. No matter how well I eat (and we grow our own veggies) I would never go a day without my supplements.
My parents had a very healthy lifestyle but that did not prevent them from dying from heart disease and cancer.
I agree that there is more to true health than diet alone (our emotional health is important, as is exercise, sleep...), however, diet is an integral part.

Anonymous said...

Good writing Nicole Senior! I am one of those that agree with you on this article. For the general public, if they can eat all those foods that you have mentioned instead of wasting money on expensive supplements, they would already have half the battle won. Of course there will always be cancer, heart disease, diabetes etc but eating a wholesome healthy diet is still the best insurance!

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