The Vitamin Myth

Paul Offit:

Nutrition experts contend that all we need is what’s typically found in a routine diet. Industry representatives, backed by a fascinating history, argue that foods don’t contain enough, and we need supplements. Fortunately, many excellent studies have now resolved the issue….

On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that women who took supplemental multivitamins died at rates higher than those who didn’t. Two days later, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic found that men who took vitamin E had an increased risk of prostate cancer. “It’s been a tough week for vitamins,” said Carrie Gann of ABC News.

These findings weren’t new. Seven previous studies had already shown that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease and shortened lives. Still, in 2012, more than half of all Americans took some form of vitamin supplements. What few people realize, however, is that their fascination with vitamins can be traced back to one man. A man who was so spectacularly right that he won two Nobel Prizes and so spectacularly wrong that he was arguably the world’s greatest quack….

How could this be? Given that free radicals clearly damage cells–and given that people who eat diets rich in substances that neutralize free radicals are healthier–why did studies of supplemental antioxidants show they were harmful? The most likely explanation is that free radicals aren’t as evil as advertised. Although it’s clear that free radicals can damage DNA and disrupt cell membranes, that’s not always a bad thing. People need free radicals to kill bacteria and eliminate new cancer cells. But when people take large doses of antioxidants, the balance between free radical production and destruction might tip too much in one direction, causing an unnatural state in which the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders. Researchers have called this “the antioxidant paradox.” Whatever the reason, the data are clear: high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of heart disease and cancer; for this reason, not a single national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends them.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chris Jones

    And I have felt guilty for years for not taking them. Thanks Scot for this post.

  • RJS4DQ

    My take?

    This is a misleading article designed to sell a new book.

  • David Wenell

    They’ve never made sense to me to take (outside of a pregnant woman possible)…it seems like God created our food to contain all the vitamins we need. Just eat right.

  • Daniel

    Out of the gate disclaimer: I am a proponent of supplementation. Not to replace a healthy lifestyle (i.e. good food choices and lifestyle choices), but to supplement with good food & lifestyle choices. Reason being that fruits and vegetables are our best / ideal source for antioxidants, however, there are studies supporting a depletion of nutrients as a result of “nutrient depleted” soils. In addition, with the effects of stress and increased toxicity of our world, recommended daily allowances (RDA) are well short of addressing optimal levels of nutrition. Remember, the RDA was established in WW2 to address issues with rickets, scurvy, etc… while our troops were in battle conditions.

    In addition to the brief and short comments above, here is a link I believe presents information that needs to be considered, as well.

    Grace & Peace,


  • Barb

    As a woman who has taken a daily multi-vitamin for years and was advised by my Doc to add Vitamin D this post raises many questions for me. Who were these women? Just random women? has this study been replicated? Also the post uses the phrase “large doses” a couple of times. What is a large dose? it also seems to sometimes be talking about antioxidants and sometimes about vitamins. I’m more inclined to think that Americans think “if a little is good–a lot must be better” and they over take and over use many products.

  • Scott

    Prenatal vitamins are recommended by the WHO and every health organization of which I know.

  • Tom F.

    Yikes, the site you linked to does not actually directly link to any of the studies, and many of the “quack” aspects of the article are directly refuted by the studies. For example, point one complains about giving vitamins to sick people, because of course sick people are more likely to die. However, some of the studies gave vitamins to sick people and also didn’t give vitamins to sick people (a controlled study, like any peer reviewed study will be). When the sick people given vitamins die at rates higher than sick people without vitamins, than you can be sure the vitamins are the culprit in a controlled experiment.

    Don’t take my word for it, go check out some of the studies the article mentions.

  • Tom F.

    What is misleading, exactly? Elaborate please.

  • Tom F.

    Good point. Does it follow that vitamins will be good for people throughout their lives? Seems like a different question.

  • Phil Miller

    Not really commenting on the article, but it reminds me of something my wife told me a number of years ago – “The bulk of the vitamins we take literally ends up in the toilet, and Americans have the most nutrient-rich poop on the planet”. She has her PhD in Food Microbiology, and I don’t remember exactly why we were talking about it…

    I will say this, though. The supplement industry on a whole does seem rather shady to me. I always think they are one of those industries trying to convince you that they have the answer to the problem you didn’t know you had.

  • ao

    RJS, I share Tom F.’s desire for further elaboration. As a top-tier chemist, your take means way more to me than other people’s takes. You’ve shown yourself to be excellent at evaluating scientific claims, so I really want to know what you find misleading here.

    Surely it’s not just that the guy wants to profit from his argument? As if his opponents were free of that accusation?

  • Susan_G1

    When I was in graduate school, Linus Pauling was much respected/beloved, and a joke at the same time. I named my cat “Linus Polecat”.

    As a doc, I’ve seen recommendations come and go. It’s discouraging. I have recommended Vit. E, Omega-3 fatty acids and vit D (+/- Calcium). The only one I continue to recommend is Vit D (not Calcium). I think because of Pauling, we think megadoses. I think that’s a mistake.

    Really, though? Prenatal vitamins reduce birth defects. Very low-dose iron and vit D supplements throughout a young girl’s growth is not a bad idea. I still think Vit D is useful. What do I take? Nothing.

  • kenny Johnson

    Except I’ve read this more than once in previous articles. This isn’t new information.

  • RJS4DQ

    Tom F,

    Paul Offit is on a circuit to hype and sell his new book Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. The most publicity worthy excerpts are chosen or summarized to drive up sales. I’ve seen enough of this by authors and publishers to be skeptical.

    My guess is that Offit has a lot that is good to say in his book. I’m not a fan of (most) alternative medicine or of megadoses of vitamins. The idea that if a little is good a lot is better is a bad approach. Pauling certainly went overboard here and the history Offit provides is interesting. The antioxidant theory has been rather seriously debunked and megadoses of many compounds can be dangerous.

    But in the opening paragraph Offit appears to set up all supplements including a daily multivitamin as useless or even dangerous. This is the part that I reacted to. As far as I can tell, this certainly isn’t accepted wisdom in the medical community or in the public health community. They may be unnecessary if one has a balanced diet – but not dangerous. Many reputable sources (Harvard School of Public Health for example) will suggest that a standard multivitamin supplement is a reasonable “insurance policy,” at the same time warning against mega doses and super supplements. Vitamin deficiencies cause very real problems. There is, I expect, a reason we drink vitamin D fortified milk.

  • RJS4DQ

    I met Pauling once, and heard him give and after dinner talk – when he was a spry octogenarian, late 80’s. He was respected, but also wryly noted that his views on vitamins were not getting any respect. Reputable journals wouldn’t publish it.

  • carrdexter3

    Well, all was well said and not surprised if all in takes has side effects.

  • attytjj466

    Ok, the point about free radicals being both good and bad is well taken. But how does one ever know where one is on the free radical continuim? How can you know you are in the sweet spot and not having too many free radicals or not enough?

  • Tom F.

    Hmm, that makes sense. That makes sense about the book circuit certainly. I missed that about the multivitamin in the beginning of the article.

    Everyone I know has been doing the “Airborne” thing whenever they get sick, and it had always seemed to me to be a bit iffy. The immune supplement is definitely a mega dose of vitamin C and a few others.

    So from where I stand, the stuff about mega doses is not well known, and this article seemed to raise serious questions about it.

    But you make a good point on the multivitamin thing.

  • Daniel

    Thanks Tom. I will look further into that. Unfortunately, we will probably just end up having to “agree to disagree” (and that is ok :)). Reason being that if the both of us wanted to, we would end up producing study after study supporting our side from prominent sides and voices.

    At the end of the day, I will remain jaded and cynical towards our Western Medical approach. We focus too much on disease diagnosis and not enough on preventative approaches (nutrition, low glycemic eating lifestyles, and exercise). I do believe there is a shift, but not enough because doctors remain skeptical, uninformed, and down right uneducated regarding nutrition.

    An average of 23.9 contact hours of nutritional instruction will hardly make a doctor “aware”. Here is the link for that stat.

    At the end of the day, there is research (thanks to the Linus Pauling Institue, TOSH -the orthopedic specialty hospital, etc.) that is supporting the need for optimal amounts of nutrition and suggesting supplementation to assist good eating.

    Note: the other issue is the types of supplements available (i am not supporting products like Centrum, Kirkland, One-A-Day,etc…). Many of the supplements are ineffective due to the types of raw ingredients and lack of regulation and commitment to good manufacturing practices.

    Just some thoughts / convictions I have communicated in grace and peace.

    Thank you 🙂

  • Daniel

    Agreed! But no more shady then Big Pharma and many of the financial benefits today’s doctors have from pushing those products in the same way.

    The reason for your wife’s comment (the nutrient rich poop part made me laugh), is b/c many of the supplements available today do not dissolve, and hence, exit the way god intended stuff to exit. I might debate the “nutrient rich” comment only b/c I remain skeptical of many of the the commercially available supplements actually having what they say on the label.

    There are Consumer Watchdogs like and NutriSearch’s Comparative Guide to Nutritional Supplements that educates consumers on the ideal supplements available.

    Those were helpful in our family deciding on which supplements we would take.



  • Tom F.

    Hi, Daniel. Sounds good. It could very well be that vitamins are indeed helpful, but when the complaints listed in the article you listed were directly addressed by at least some of the study methodologies, than I got suspicious. Sorry for sounding a bit direct.

  • Daniel

    No apology necessary. I am committed to conversation. I assure you I did not receive your reply in any negative fashion. At the end of the day, appreciate the dialogue (no matter how brief).

    Have a wonderful day 🙂