Friday, October 14, 2011

Does Taking Supplements Hurt You?

This week a study released by the Archives of Internal Medicine reported that taking supplements offered little benefit and may in fact cause early death. Tracking nearly 39,000 women, 55 and older for 19 years, they found that those taking supplements experienced a slightly higher risk of death.

I hate these kinds of studies. They do a huge disservice to the public. I am highly suspect of the motivation behind this study. Plus, I want to know exactly what these women ate.

Here are my takes on why this study is flawed:
  1. Many people take supplements as insurance. You can't eat junk food, packaged and processed food, lots of meat and sugar and think that popping a few pills will save you. I used to represent a supplement company and frequently hung out with other reps for the company. I was shocked at what these people ate. The general feeling was they could eat what they wanted because they were taking these great supplements that would keep them healthy. Wrong!
  2. What exactly were the supplements these women took? Supplements are not created equal. Artificial vitamins are just as bad as artificial ingredients in processed food. Right out of a chemistry lab, these supplements could do harm rather than good. In addition, if the supplement is in tablet form rather than powder in a capsule, which is easier to digest, you may be getting no benefit at all.
  3. The increased risk of death was only 2.4%. That number puts the risk in the noise category. It is not statistically high enough to warrant significance. Why even report something this low and conclude "that supplements are not protective against chronic diseases," says Jaakko Mursu, the study's lead author. "In some cases they may be harmful, especially if used for a long time." I can only conclude that there is an ulterior motive in the study.
  4. Iron supplementation for older women is dangerous. No wonder the study found an increase of 3.9% risk of premature death from iron supplementation. Too much iron can cause oxidative stress and free-radical damage causing premature cancer and heart disease. Packaged foods are enhanced with artificial vitamins and minerals which may contribute to the overdose of iron. Older women are rarely iron deficient and therefore may be contributing to increased cancer and heart disease by taking an iron supplement. 
  5. Study criteria and control factors were weak. The authors noted that their data can't distinguish whether the women they studied were taking supplements to fight diseases or simply to maintain health. That alone makes their study meaningless. If the women who died prematurely were taking supplements to fight a disease, they were already at a risk for early death.
So what's the bottom line here? I say go back to basics. The road to health comes down to diet.
Supplements will not keep you from getting sick.
A healthy diet will.

I fear that studies like this bring more scrutiny by the FDA to regulate supplements, which would likely increase the cost of supplements and possibly remove some from the market. With the FDA's close ties to drug companies, I am highly suspect of the real focus behind these studies.

What are your concerns about taking supplements?


  1. Thanks for helping clear up the confusion about this issue, Chris. I was skeptical of these studies.

  2. No wonder people generally ignore the news on health.

  3. Forgot to say that NPR's Richard Knox interviewed me about the study for the Morning Edition segment called Your Health. Listen to see if you hear a sound bit from me.