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Piece of Mind: Don’t take your vitamins

Posted: Thursday, Jun 13th, 2013

If you are ever invited to participate in a trial that tests the efficacy of a new vitamin, you might want to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Writing for the New York Times, Paul Offit, the chief of the infectious diseases division of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, explains that for too long consumers like you and me have been taking megavitamins that could actually shorten our lives—the exact thing we are each trying to avoid by ingesting them in the first place.

Since the early 90’s, researchers have studied the effects of vitamins on consumers’ health. In a 1994 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, 29,000 Finnish men, all smokers, were given daily vitamin E, beta carotene, both, or a placebo. The study found that those who took beta carotene for five to eight years were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease.

A similar study published in the same journal two years later was stopped short after investigators realized that participants who took vitamins were 46 percent more likely to die from lung cancer than those taking a placebo.

More recently, a study published in 2011 in the Journal of the American Medical Association tied vitamin E supplements to an increased risk of prostate cancer.

Offit asks two obvious questions. Why don’t we all know more about these studies and how can vitamin makers still sell us their products when studies show they may be harmful?

Well, for both questions there is one answer: Vitamin makers have the law on their side.

In 1976, a law was passed that banned the Food and Drug Administration from regulating megavitamins. Speaking in opposition to the law, Marsha Cohen, a lawyer with the Consumers Union explained, “You would need to eat eight cantaloupes — a good source of vitamin C — to take in barely 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C. But just these two little pills, easy to swallow, contain the same amount… one tablet would contain as much vitamin C as all of these cantaloupes, or even twice, thrice or 20 times that amount. And there would be no protective satiety level.”

None of this is to say that we don’t need vitamins. Vitamins are necessary to convert the food we eat into energy. Otherwise we suffer from diseases like rickets and scurvy. Offit explains that “Nutrition experts argue that people need only the recommended daily allowance — the amount of vitamins found in a routine diet.”

A routine diet means eating from the rainbow. That doesn’t mean that your pills should all be different colors. Rather, it means you should eat a diversity of real, chewable food; food that as Michael Pollan says comes from the perimeter of the grocery store.

All of this goes to show that even as our knowledge grows and our technology expands, the human body really hasn’t changed that much. It still needs food, real food. For most of us, it really is that simple.

Gena Akers can be contacted at gena.leneigh@gmail.com.

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