Friday, October 16, 2009


When I lived in San Francisco, Vitamania had arrived, the new disease that a program on CBS-TV gave the health scene dominating the Bay Area (San Francisco and surroundings). One person interviewed on this show takes 56 supplements per day - vitamin and mineral supplements, energy and immune boosters, stress tabs, and many more. No wonder last year, the dietary-supplement industry posted $14 billion in sales in the US.

Who takes supplements?
When I moved to California from Toronto in 1996, I wondered why everyone was taking supplements, until I discovered that supplement use is most common in the western US and among whites, women, older persons, those with higher personal incomes, those with more education, nonsmokers (especially former smokers), and those who do not drink alcohol heavily. The typical client in my private practice.
Why are people taking supplements?
Is it the fear of not eating a perfect diet, the search for good health, the increased need for energy, a youthful look or a longer life? Or is it because of recommendations by family members and friends, enticing and overflowing supermarket shelves, or salespeople at health food stores and multi-level marketing companies?
The marketing techniques include fear tactics such as: "the soil is depleted" argument - plants cannot grow if the soil is depleted; the harm from pesticides and pollution, yet there is no convincing evidence that synthetic chemical pollutants are important as a cause of human cancer;3 or the paranoid rumors that scientists and government agencies are in a conspiracy against the supplement industry.
Supplement use is more common among persons who believe diet affects disease.2 If health is the quest, why isn't more fresh produce eaten? A quarter of the population that eats the fewest fruits and vegetables have double the cancer rate for most types of cancer when compared to the quarter with the highest intake.4 This should be the wake-up call. Yet when I give talks, I ask the audience how many people take supplements, most of the hands proudly go up. When I ask how many people eat five fruits and vegetables a day, half of the hands go up. Knowledge is not put into action. Instead a quick fix is sought.
After my first talk in the US, every question asked was on supplements. Which vitamin or mineral, how much and how often? It seems to me we have missed the message. How can people logically prefer pills to food? In other countries, people are more skeptical and would question the source of the information, particularly if that source was selling the product. Recently, I gave a talk in Australia and mentioned the supplement use and abuse in the U.S. This prompted an audience member to say ``Are Americans daft? How can they believe such nonsense?" I don't have an answer.
What should we recommend?
Should we take away the hope of the consumer when people are terrified they are missing something? Even as science writers, it's difficult to keep up-to-date on all the newest research work.
I can let you know what I feel comfortable to recommend: start with an improved diet and no supplements. If certain foods are not eaten, not attainable or a person is at risk for certain diseases, add supplements that are essential to the specific condition.
If the consumer wants to cover all the bases and take a supplement, the safest bet is still one that's close to 100% RNI. Well known, low cost brands should be used; expensive pills are not a better quality. For pregnant women, the elderly and people on a restricted diet, supplements may be necessary. Calcium, folic acid, iron, Vitamin C and E supplements will depend on each individual and can be determined by a registered dietitian after a thorough nutrition history.
The consumer mistakenly believes if a little is better, more is best. Numerous studies have shown that Vitamin E supplementation reduces risk for colon and prostate cancer, brain dysfunction and coronary heart disease.4,5 One study demonstrated doses of vitamin E from 70 to 560 IU lowered lipid peroxidation while a dose of 1050 IU increased it, demonstrating the harmful effects of overdosing.
As science writers, it is our obligation to help people eat well and keep them educated with the best that science can offer. If members need to research information on supplements, first visit the following web sites: ; the National Council Against Health Fraud's ; and from the National Institutes of Health.
1.The Wall Street Journal, February 18, 1999.
2.J Am Diet Assoc 1996;96:73
3.The FASEB Journal, Vol.11, November 1997. Environmental Pollution, Pesticides, and the Prevention of Cancer: Misconceptions by Bruce N. Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold
4.Bruce N. Ames in Toxicology Letter 102-103 (1998) 5-18 (Micronutrients prevent cancer and delay aging)
5.Diplock, AT, Free Radic Res 1997 Nov;27(5):511-32, Will the 'good fairies' please prove to us that vitamin E lessens human degenerative disease?
Written and researched by Maye Musk, MS, MS, RD