The bullshit of vitamins and supplements

Dr Paul Offitt is on the case.

A pediatrician who spent years defending childhood vaccines against the likes of actress/activist Jenny McCarthy has launched an assault on megavitamins and dietary supplements.

“If you take large quantities of vitamin A, vtamin E, beta carotene [or] selenium you increase your risk of cancer, risk of heart disease, and you could shorten your life,” says Dr. Paul Offit, a researcher at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The good thing here is, he has actual training in this field, unlike a certain eldest son I could mention.

One big problem with dietary supplements is a 1994 law that exempts them from the tighter scrutiny the FDA applies to its regulation of medicines, Offit says. So the makers of a garlic supplement can say that it “supports cardiovascular health” even though a government study found that garlic supplements didn’t lower cholesterol. Meanwhile, Offit says, patients clearly benefit from a range of FDA-approved statin drugs that actually do what garlic supplements claim to do.

I remember the lobbying for that law. Every time I wandered into a health foods store I would see 47 signs and notices shouting about the horror of regulation of dietary supplements. The forces of No Information Please won that fight: makers of supplements get to say any old bullshit, which consumers believe, because they know the gummint wouldn’t allow anybody to tell lies on packaging.

Offit says doctors are partly to blame for the growing popularity of high-dose vitamins and other dietary supplements. Rather than pushing back against patients who want to take them, he says, doctors have acted like waiters at a restaurant, simply asking, “What would you like?”

Many hospitals also include unproved dietary supplements in their list of medicines available to patients, Offit says. But he says his own institution, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, plans to remove nearly all supplements from its list later this month.

Offit says his attack on dietary supplements has generated a steady stream of hate mail. But he says it’s not as harsh as the hate mail he used to get from people who believe vaccines cause autism. “This is more, I’m ‘a liar and a shill for the pharmaceutical industry,’ ” he says, “not, ‘You’re going to hell.’ “

We need an official scale for hate mail.


  1. clamboy says

    Dr. Offit was recently on Science Friday, and on SGU. I listened to the former prior to the latter, and was pretty disturbed by the host’s credulity and lack of skepticism – he demanded much more from Dr. Offit, while granting quite a lot of license to the person representing “the other side.” When I then heard Dr. Offit being interviewed on SGU, I realized the recording had taken place before his appearance on SciFri. He was asked about his upcoming appearance, and in his answer he expressed concerns that the host’s historic soft spot for supplements and such would tend to make him more sympathetic to the woo. Suspicion confirmed!

  2. kaboobie says

    My doctor always recommends a multivitamin when I get my annual physical. I smile and nod. I do take a calcium supplement because I’ve become lactose intolerant with age and stopped drinking milk, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go.

  3. Forbidden Snowflake says

    Offit’s article (or rather, book excerpt) about vitamins in The Atlantic last week was a fantastic read.

    A scale of hate mail? Hmm, where does “You’re going to hell” fall on the scale of “I take umbrage” to “I shall kill and eat your children”?

  4. sailor1031 says

    My cardiologist finally took me off the daily megadose (1000mg) of niacin – supposed to lower cholesterol while seriously endagering your liver and giving you the worst hot flushes you can imagine. I feel so much better now. Never would I take big doses of any vitamin again.

  5. says

    Supplements have their legitimate medical use. But mega-dose therapy, and the dizzying number of claims made about this and that and the other…. 90% is quack get-rich-quick pseudoscience and most of the rest is plain bullshit. We really need to go back to full regulation, where ANY medical claims must be backed up with actual, you know, SCIENCE.

    Yeah, yeah. I’m not holding my breath, either.

  6. Pieter B, FCD says

    kaboobie @#3

    I do take a calcium supplement

    I recall year or two back a study on supplements and longevity, and IIRC the only one that had any apparent positive effect on longevity was calcium. If I had the time to Google, I’d try to find it, but I would bet that it has something to do with a protective effect on osteoporotic hip fracture.

    I got a bit annoyed at my physician last year when he suggested I try glucosamine, as I was already taking a 21st-century arthritis medication.

  7. great1american1satan says

    My dude has Vitamin D levels on par with an AIDS patient, for no apparent reason, so I give him 1000mg a day. Seems like a good idea given the blood information, but does anybody here think otherwise? I’d like to know.

  8. grumpyoldfart says

    I don’t know how the human race survived for tens of thousands of years until we got multi vitamin pills in the 20th century.

  9. Pieter B, FCD says

    Ah—this is probably the study I remember.

    In older women, several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk; this association is strongest with supplemental iron. In contrast to the findings of many studies, calcium is associated with decreased risk.

    Disregard the one from CRN just above; looking further at their site, they seem to accept as an article of faith that we all need supplements because we just don’t get enough otherwise.

  10. says

    I wonder, out of the people who think they need to supplement bc they do not get enough out of their diet, do they actually know which nutrients are needed, in what quantities, and how much they get in an average day?

    Going with no on that.

  11. says

    As a gift basket, my mother recently sent me the following supplements:
    L-Glutathione which is some kind of amino acid supplement
    Acetyl L-Carnitine which is “for use as part of a healthy aging program”
    Acidophilus which promotes immune health, relief from occasional constipation, gas and bloating, and promotes gastro-intestinal health and regularity.

    All from Puritans Pride.
    All without evaluations from the FDA.

    All remain unopened.
    I want to have a conversation with my parents about the supposed benefits of supplements. Not sure where to go to get the facts.

  12. 1001 says

    When you put too much oil in a car engine, it’s seals burst.
    If you out the oil in the windshield washer container, a malfunction occurs. 🙂
    If you believe the oil goes in the windshield wash container,you will put it in again and again.
    After all, you were told it was the right thing to do by advertisements and people that know. Right?

    It does seem to me that some suplements work while others cause problems.
    B12 doesn’t fail but that to can harm You if taken in to high a dose.

    I think a person should listen to their body and take a supplement only when the need arises.
    Your body WILL tell you when.

    Just to say also, I’ve seen so much bs about libido enhancers and it irritates me.
    All you need for your libido is the right woman or man.
    You CANNOT be turned on ALL the time.
    The body and mind sees procreation as a luxury.
    One that will only be presented when all the other functions are taken care of and, the body in as perfect health as possible.then, it allows for luxuries.

    One more. Cayenne pepper is the one supplement that I know to work and yet. It is a naturally found food as is and just like a carrot.
    It improves your blood health tremendously and I DO believe it can actually prevent heat attacks as it opens the arteries.

    Most of the other supplements are bs.
    Until there is government testing and labelling of supplements, people are playing Russian roulette with them and I, wont take them until there is government testing.

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