Did you know we’re in the midst of a vitamin D deficiency epidemic? By the standards of the Endocrine Society, 80% of Americans have inadequate vitamin D levels. You better go buy some pills! You better buy Michael Holick’s books! He’s the guy who is obsessed with warning everyone about their dangerously low vitamin D, and he’s not kooky at all.
The Boston University endocrinologist, who perhaps more than anyone else is responsible for creating a billion-dollar vitamin D sales and testing juggernaut, elevates his own levels of the stuff with supplements and fortified milk. When he bikes outdoors, he won’t put sunscreen on his limbs. He has written book-length odes to vitamin D, and has warned in multiple scholarly articles about a “vitamin D deficiency pandemic” that explains disease and suboptimal health across the world.
His fixation is so intense that it extends to the dinosaurs. What if the real problem with that asteroid 65 million years ago wasn’t a lack of food, but the weak bones that follow a lack of sunlight? “I sometimes wonder,” Holick has written, “did the dinosaurs die of rickets and osteomalacia?”
I’ve seen this phenomenon in educated people before: they latch onto one explanation for something, and suddenly they apply it to everything, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof, and insist that it is the One True Theory, and all must bow before it. For other examples, see the Aquatic Ape Absurdity and Brian Ford’s Bullshit. It’s the lure of the Umbrella Hypothesis, braced by a little factlet of truth.
So yes, you can be deficient in vitamin D, and it can lead to real diseases. It’s just that here in developed countries with actual policies that lead to reasonable monitoring and addition of supplements to key foods (milk has been supplemented with vitamin D for over a hundred years to prevent rickets), we’re fine. You don’t need to go to extremes to correct an imaginary deficiency.
Except that inventing imaginary problems and selling the cure is extremely profitable.
Since 2011, Holick’s advocacy has been embraced by the wellness-industrial complex. Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, Goop, cites his writing. Dr. Mehmet Oz has described vitamin D as “the No. 1 thing you need more of,” telling his audience that it can help them avoid heart disease, depression, weight gain, memory loss and cancer. And Oprah Winfrey’s website tells readers that “knowing your vitamin D levels might save your life.” Mainstream doctors have pushed the hormone, including Dr. Walter Willett, a widely respected professor at Harvard Medical School.
He’s been getting paid a thousand dollars every month for his vitamin D promotion! He’s received hundreds of thousands of dollars from pharmaceutical companies! The tanning bed industry donated $150,000 to his research!
I’ve been missing out on the gravy train, and I’ve got to start hawking my own supplement. I thought of one. You know, I bet you’ve eaten hardly any spiders lately. It’s true, isn’t it — they aren’t part of our usual cuisine, and no one spices their food with ground-up spider bits, except for those wierdos in Cambodia, so I can argue without being gainsaid that almost all of us have a spider deficiency. I can even make up statistics, like that 99.7% of Americans haven’t eaten any spider at all lately, and trust that no one will say I’m wrong.
Now I just need a common disease that I can blame entirely on arachnoinsufficiency, and before you know it, Gwyneth Paltrow will be knocking on my door.