Book Discusses Vitamins in Public Health, but May Not Get the Science Right

Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, a recently released book, attempts to debunk the “myths” surrounding the history and use of vitamins in the US. In an op-ed for the New York Times, and in other places, the author Catherine Price has discussed some of the central arguments of the book. Undoubtedly, Price makes a very important point: to the extent that we rely on vitamins to make up for, or justify, a poor diet, we’re harming our health in ways that supplements can’t set right. At the same time, Price notes that supplementation, especially in the form of fortification, is necessary for many people precisely because they eat processed foods lacking in many nutrients. Yet, Price’s suggestion seems to be that if we ate a truly healthy diet, and consumed enough vitamins to prevent nutritional deficiencies, taking additional vitamins or other supplements wouldn't play a role in promoting optimal health. Such a claim, however, is simply not supported by the science. There is ample evidence indicating that vitamins and other supplements can help prevent some diseases, or help alleviate symptoms of some diseases, other than those related to a nutritional deficiency. For example:

  • The largest randomized controlled trial of multivitamin mineral (MVM) supplements, the Physicians’ Health Study II, which enrolled over 14,000 participants, showed statistically significant health benefits from taking MVM supplements and suggested that MVM supplements may help decrease one's risk of certain chronic diseases.
  • In a double-blind trial, supplementation with 45 mg per day of zinc slowed the progression of age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of vision loss in elderly people.
  • In a double-blind trial, supplementation with 300 mg per day of coenzyme Q10 for 2 years significantly decreased mortality and the number of hospitalizations, and significantly improved heart function, in patients with chronic congestive heart failure.
  • In a double-blind trial, taking vitamin D supplements for 4 months during the flu season reduced the number of children who developed the flu by 42%.

These studies represent just a minute fraction of the total body of evidence supporting supplement use. Indeed, for those researchers who specialize in nutritional science, it is simply not true that there is a lack of consensus about the health benefits of some vitamins and supplements. In fact, several leading researchers from Oregon State University, Tufts University, and Harvard University published a letter just last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine advocating the use of MVM supplements. Price, like some who have criticized the supplement industry, raises some valid issues, but ultimately appears to misrepresent the science.

Source: New York Times

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