Food is in while supplement pills are out

Skewed diet and no pills (Photo: Tony Evans)

Skewed diet and no supplements go together (Photo: Tony Evans)

This blog is not for you if your main meals consist of McDonald’s burgers and KFC chickens, you only drink soft drinks and Red Bull, and you eat doughnuts instead of wholegrain bread, because you would never even contemplate to take vitamin or mineral supplements. You might need it though.

But if you eat a varied diet and worry about your nutrition, it is very likely that you would also supplement your diet with multivitamins and minerals. This is a real conundrum because if you are in the latter group you actually satisfy your vitamin and mineral needs through your diet and don’t need the supplements.

And did you know that the supplements can actually do more harm than good? I guess you didn’t. It is all about p53, but more about that later.

Too much of a good thing

Don’t get me wrong, vitamins and minerals are absolutely necessary for the body to maintain good health. This has been known for a reasonably long time, with possibly the best example being the complete cure of scurvy with vitamin C. Scurvy was a terrible disease that plagued humans long back through recorded history, but now a rarely seen condition. Many other vitamins and micronutrients are required for good health.

Antioxidants, like selenium, and the vitamins A, C and E, fight free radicals that can damage DNA, cell membranes, and the lining of arteries. Deficiencies can cause all sorts of diseases, some of them very serious. Several studies have shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables that contain plenty of antioxidants have a lower incidence of cancer and heart disease and live longer. The logic is obvious that if people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables are healthier, then people who take supplemental antioxidants should also be healthier.

But not so. Remarkably, studies involving tens of thousands of subjects have shown that high doses of vitamins and supplements, rather than being helpful, lack beneficial effects or can sometimes even be harmful to health. It seem that humans are adapted to getting nutrients from whole foods and not through pills. Most nutrients require enzymes, synergistic co-factors and organic mineral-activators to be properly absorbed. While these are naturally present in foods, they are often not included in synthetic vitamins with isolated nutrients.

And I have the science to prove it.


Vitamin and mineral supplements can even be harmful (Photo: Steven Depolo)

An evaluation of 38,772 older women found that several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements, including multivitamins, vitamins B6, and folic acid, as well as minerals like iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper, were associated with a higher risk of total mortality. Iron was of particular concern since it was strongly and dose dependently associated with increased total mortality risk.

A study of 35,533 men found that the risk of prostate cancer increased for the men taking vitamin E, selenium, or both. Although the increased risk was small, it was clear that neither of these supplements was helpful against prostate cancer.

In reviewing 27 trials looking at the efficacy of vitamin supplements in 400,000 adults with no nutritional deficiencies, the typical supplement customers, no clear evidence of a beneficial effect of supplements on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, or cancer could be found.

Daily multivitamins to prevent cognitive decline among 5,947 elderly men didn’t improve overall cognitive performance or verbal memory. After 12 years of follow-up, there were no differences between the multivitamin and placebo groups.

Many more trials have assessed the role of vitamin and mineral supplements in primary or secondary prevention of chronic disease and have consistently found no beneficial effects or even possible harm. Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements have been seen to increase mortality. How is that?

It might be the p53

The p53 is a gene that has been dubbed the guardian of the genome, your DNA. Its job is to detect and destroy cells with defective DNA, including early cancer cells. Of course you don’t want to interfere in that process, but you might inadvertently do just that by taking extra antioxidants. A team of Swedish scientists has now proved that antioxidants can fuel growth of lung cancers. Antioxidants are supposed to protect healthy cells from chemically unstable oxygen molecules that can damage DNA and cause cancer. But they also shut off the p53 gene, thus allowing cancer cells to grow and divide faster than usual.

So the research results presented above that seemed a bit suspicious at first now has a plausible explanation. Basically, antioxidants help early tumours to survive and grow and can thus increase mortality. The opposite to what you want.

Stop the pill popping

Fruit (Photo: Mariia Kravtsova)

A balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables is sufficient for most people (Photo: Mariia Kravtsova)

The simple truth for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies is that most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death. Their use is not justified, and they should be avoided since some might even be harmful. Supplements are only needed where there is a demonstrable micronutrient deficiency. The most promising data in the area of nutrition and positive health outcomes relate to dietary patterns, not nutrient supplements. In most cases, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and a balanced diet, will provide all micronutrients and vitamins needed. So maybe you should skip that burger tomorrow and go for an apple.