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What the Dietary Supplement Industry Doesn't Want You to Know

Taking vitamins may actually do you more harm than good.

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The nutritional supplement industry is big. Real big. Like $32 billion a year big, according to Forbes Magazine. And that amount, says Forbes, is expected to double by 2021. That's a lot of vitamins.  In fact, almost half of the U.S. population takes vitamins. Must be good for what ails you, right? Well, maybe not. Those billions of dollars go very far to enrich the supplement industry, but according to numerous scientific studies, virtually nowhere to enrich your health.  In fact, because your body excretes out many of the vitamins it can’t use, you might say you are literally flushing that money right down the toilet.

A recent study by researchers at Oxford University, and reported in the medical journal The Lancet, tells us that vitamin supplements offer no protection against cancer, stroke, heart disease, indeed ANY disease outside of maybe beri beri and scurvy (so maybe good for 15th century explorers.)  In a controlled study of 20,000 people, over five years, scientists found that those taking vitamins were just as likely to die from any cause as those taking dummy pills.  It also found no protection against heart attack, stroke, cancer, bone disease, brain decline, or eye disease.  Lung diseases such as asthma were as prevalent among vitamin takers as dummy pill takers.  Help with cataracts?  Nope.  Osteoporosis?  Nuh uh.  Professor Rory Collins, lead researcher on the study noted, “'We continued the treatment for five years and we saw absolutely no effect on vascular disease or any cancers.”

David Agus, a doctor and author of The End of Illness summed up a whole bunch of science on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show”: “There have been 50 large-scale studies on supplements,” he said, “and not one has shown a benefit in heart disease or cancer. I don’t get it. Why are we taking these?”

Longstanding and understandable distrust of the pharmaceutical industry may partially answer that question.  Americans suspect that money, not concern for health, drives that industry, and to some extent, they are correct.  But it’s possible that Big Vita may be just as profit driven as Big Pharma, Lauren Steicher, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told US News and World Report.

And more ominously, while big drug companies are regulated and overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, consumers have no such protection from the supplement industry, which was exempted from oversight with the 1994 enactment of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.  That act basically allowed the industry to police itself, which is seldom a good idea.  A report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that this law is largely unenforced. "Does the FDA make mistakes?” Dr. Steicher said.  “Yes. But they're the only protection we've got to make sure greed doesn't get in the way of science."  The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, an independent research and publishing entity, noted that of 30,000 products rated by them, under one percent were rated highly for safety, effectiveness, and quality.  That’s 300 products out of 30,000.

But beyond just being a waste of money, there is the distinct possibility that vitamins can actually do some harm, if taken in sufficient quantity. “As Americans, we think more is better, but that’s not the case with vitamins,” Dee Sandquist, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told US News and World Report.  In other words, while a little vitamin consumption won’t hurt anything but your wallet, a lot of it can do more.  Much more.

The dangers of the ABCs (the Ds, Es, and Ks too).