Unnecessary vitamins

America is prone to all manner of food fads. New diets come and go with eye-popping rapidity and this or that food becomes the new magic food that everyone latches on to, before it is replaced by something else. Kale is now the latest miracle food to be dethroned. The problem is that people go overboard with the big new fad and overdo it, rather than taking everything in moderation

The US has a massive industry devoted to encouraging people to take nutritional supplements of various kinds. Perhaps the longest-lasting fad is that of taking vitamin supplements, sometimes in large doses, in the belief that it will promote general good health and even prevent things like colds. But there is very little evidence to support this belief.

Catherine Price says that while we do need vitamins to ward off some illnesses, in some cases, large doses of these supplements can be harmful.

“Most of the things we take vitamins for don’t have much evidence behind them,” she says. “There isn’t convincing [research] showing that multivitamins will do much beyond healing serious deficiency diseases.”

“Vitamin C has not been shown to ward off colds,” Price says. In her view, the only magic being performed by Airborne is the miracle of the placebo effect. “If you truly believe that Vitamin C will prevent you from being sick, then it might prevent you from being sick. But there is no substantial scientific evidence.”

Price doesn’t deny the power of nutritional vitamins — she notes that Vitamin C will cure scurvy, and a few squirts of Vitamin A can work miracles for the nutritionally blind.

There are 13 vitamins in all. Four of them (A, D, E, and K) are fat soluble while the remaining nine (C and the 8 kinds of B vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12) are water soluble. Price says that we can get what we need from eating a normal balanced diet and should not need supplements.

UPDATE: A friend of mine who happens to be a vegan and thus is well-informed about vegetables and diets in general takes issue with the link in the post that casts a skeptical eye on kale as a miracle food and has sent me links to other articles that cast doubt on the doubts raised about kale. You can see the counter-arguments here, here, and here.

As you can see from these posts (see the corrections at the ends of them), there has been some back-and-forth as to what was originally claimed.

This is common in science, especially in those areas where definitive conclusions are hard to draw and the food-health link is one such area. Claims are made, then challenged, then modified, and so on, until a consensus emerges. But sometimes the issue remains unresolved for a long time.


  1. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    In short engineerspeak:
    -- “water soluble” = gets flushed out of the body in a matter of days
    -- “fat soluble” = will last over the winter
    Especially D has been mentioned lately over here at 60 degrees N. But then there is an additional difference between D2 and D3. Maybe there will be a new fad about eating only those vitamins with a prime number as a suffix. Besides, 2 is the only prime number that isn’t odd, which makes it the oddest of them all. (Knuth?)

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Vitamin D is one that is difficult to keep up to optimum levels without supplements, especially if you are concerned about skin damage from sun exposure. I take vit. D supplements, but that is under a doctor’s instructions, and after I had a blood test.

  3. DonDueed says

    Rob, you could be in for a deficiency disease. You’re leaving out the most important food group of all: pizza.

  4. jws1 says

    When will the “gluten-free” craze end? Just look at the vociferous push-back whenever it is pointed out that there is no such thing as non-celiac gluten “intolerance”…

  5. Smokey says

    “Price says that we can get what we need from eating a normal balanced diet and should not need supplements.”

    That’s the thing, though. I don’t eat a “normal balanced diet”. At most I try to balance the junk food with copious amounts of alcohol.

  6. says

    Food is grown in the ground over a period of months, not produced instantly by a microwave oven.

    Small wonder that most those who want instant “food” want a magic bullet instead of spending months eating healthy and working out.

  7. lorn says

    Mega-doses of pretty much anything, outside of a known disease are wasteful. That said I realize I don’t always get a balanced diet. I figured out what I ate and then looked up stuff like how much vitamin-C that anemic bit of pale red tomato likely had, near to none, and figured out a simple and inexpensive multi-vitamin might fill in some of the gaps.

    Americans are typically overfed but we are also often wanting for some nutrients. Many of us are chronically short of the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin-D; women tend to run short of calcium and sometimes iron; men sometimes don’t get the recommended doses of magnesium. Shortages of calcium and magnesium may be a result of eating less dirt. Vitamin-D, a result of avoiding the sun.

    The doctor I consult recommended fish oil (heart and mood), and “B-50” , high-dose B-complex, ( the singular exception to the no mega-dose rule) if I’m feeling down and/or depressed. Seems to work. Dirt cheap. Far, far cheaper than antidepressants and/or mood stabilizers, and, big bonus, no side effects beyond Technicolor urine.

  8. jd142 says

    @moarscienceplz -- Me too. My feet felt like they were “asleep” all the time, and it started to spread up my calves and thighs as well. It took three doctors before they found the cause -- vitamin D deficiency. She gave me a prescription for a weeks worth of vitamin D doses at something like 1,000 (some ungodly high number at any rate) times the normal levels. By the end of the week I was almost back to normal. I still have problems with my toes off and on (not diabetic; my levels are textbook normal there) and probably will for the rest of my life because of the damage that was done.

    I had been and still do take a 45 -- 60 minute walk every day, rain or shine. Apparently I just don’t absorb vitamin D well. I don’t drink milk and I don’t care for fish, which are two good sources of vitamin D; fortified cereals and other fortified labeled products don’t add vitamin D like they do with milk. My doctor said it won’t hurt me if I take a regular multivitamin, implying that it won’t help much either, but a vitamin D3 specific one would be a good idea.

  9. smrnda says

    I recall looking up the nutritional content for kale. It had decent quantities of a few vitamins and minerals, but given its numbers I could never really see any reason for more than 1 serving of it a day. For the stuff it’s got, that’s enough. For everything it didn’t, you’d be better off eating something else.

    Perhaps a problem with telling people ‘you can just eat a regular, healthy balanced diet’ is most people have no idea what that would be, nor would they be equipped to evaluate claims made by different people. Pushing *specific, branded* diets is an industry, and that doesn’t work by educating people.

  10. tecolata says

    I still like the food matters advice: Eat food. Mostly plants. In moderation.
    Eat food -- the suggestion to not eat anything your grandmother would not recognize as edible. I’m certain my grandmother never ate bok choy, but she would see it as something to eat, probably ask in Yiddish “so what kind of cabbage is that?”
    Mostly plants -- not necessarily vegan, but the “modern” bacon in the morning, burger at lunch, steak in the evening is not good for us or the environment
    In moderation -- eating 10 tons of kale is not good for you. Eating a small slice of cheesecake once in a while won’t kill you.

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