Friday, October 14, 2011

Will taking vitamins really shorten your life?

Suddenly everyone is talking about nutritional supplements. And the IowaWomen’s Health Study that showed that they may be actually bad for you.  In case you missed it, this study showed that taking certain supplements causes older women to die prematurely. If you are thinking “Oh, no, I’ve been doing it all wrong!” – just hang on a minute.

Let me ask you now to get out a piece of paper and start making a list: What kind of supplements have you taken in the past 11 years? What exactly was in them, what was the dosage and how often did you actually take them and for how long of a time period. Do you find this question absurd? Ok, fine. How about the past 7 years?

Sadly, that’s how the study was conducted:  Roughly 29,000 women with a mean age of 62 years self reporting 3 times over a period of 18 years.

As a nutrition therapist, I can state this with absolute certainty: At least half of you reading this can’t remember what you had for lunch yesterday – let alone what pills you popped 10 years ago. And if you think that the women participating in this study simply wrote down their supplement intake for all these years, I’d say probably not.  When I ask my new clients to come to their first appointment having written down 3 days of diet diary most either forget it or only sit down once or twice during those 3 days to actually try to remember what they put in their bodies.  And that’s something I ask them to do for 3 days. Not for 18 years.

There was also no control group, no accounting for why those women who were taking more supplements were taking them in the first place (Did they have underlying illnesses they were trying to remedy by taking extra supplements? Were they already less healthy than those taking less?), on the specific combinations taken, no report on the quality of the supplements or their origin (synthetic or food based), very little reported on lifestyles and dietary habits, no note on quality of life for the participants of the study. In fact, the reported deaths were categorized as “Cancer”, “Cardiovascular Disease” and “Other” with no further explanations. There was never any causality established. Just correlation – and not a very significant one at that.  

All in all, I have to admit, I’m a bit confused how this passes for science. No, I don’t think supplements are without risks but I think the way the media is passing on this information, essentially discouraging all supplement intakes, is very counterproductive to the average person.

And if you are wondering: I am not a supplement pusher. I generally recommend only taking supplements to support specific underlying imbalances or to correct a deficiency – both under a practitioner’s care. I do like professional quality food based multi vitamins which I recommend often – though you could argue those are simply food ground up and put in a pill…