Is Nutrition a Gamble?




Just when it begins to look as if nutrition is making headway with the health establishment and the media, something comes up to set the clock back 10 or 15 years. The most recent skirmish appeared on page 1 of the New York Times on Sunday, October 26, 1997. The headline defines the article: “In Vitamin Mania, Millions Take a Gamble on Health.” No matter what follows, this article, by Jane Brody, is intended to drive the American people away from vitamin therapy. The words “mania” and “gamble” suggest that nutrient therapy is crazy, without scientific support. Many readers probably read no farther than the headline and instead go back to junk food and extra desserts in celebration of this liberation from the thousands of positive health messages in support of nutrition these past few years.

Reading on one learns that about 100 million of us Americans are now spending 6.5 billion dollars a year on vitamin pills and potions, thus “volunteering for a vast largely unregulated experiment with substances that may be helpful, harmful or simply ineffective.” We are reminded that the Food and Drug Administration performs no testing for safety or efficacy because these are considered “dietary supplements” not drugs. And on the next page of this article that fills almost two full pages of the paper, we find a chart depicting basic information about 14 vitamins and minerals, including warnings. This is actually a job well done; however it is ironic to see magnesium linked to fatality in people with kidney disease. Yes, that is possible; but it is very rare because magnesium overdose causes diarrhea, which limits the danger.

There is no mention in this article, or any other vitamin critique that I have ever seen, that overdoses of fluoride can also be fatal, especially in people with weak kidneys. Only fluoride does not cause diarrhea; instead it accumulates in the skeleton and soft tissues, including the kidneys, where it hastens damage. Renal disease is often not diagnosed until over half of kidney function is already lost. The number of people at risk for fluoride toxicity is therefore much higher than the number at possible risk of magnesium overdose. And besides, magnesium is an essential mineral, multiply beneficial for health and protection against coronary artery disease and death. I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THIS!

Fluoride, on the other hand, has only one alleged benefit, hardening of dental enamel, conferring some resistance to cavities. And some people are buying fluoride when they don’t have to: it is already in the water and in almost all toothpaste. The danger of over-dose of fluoride is already so great that the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency went against government policy and publicly opposed fluoridation of the nation’s water supply. But you don’t read headlines in the New York Times, or any major newspaper, that call fluoride a huge gamble on the health of the nation. But it is so, and has an even narrower margin of safety than selenium. Unfortunately the toxic effects of fluoride are subtle and usually goes undiagnosed until the bones weaken and break, and by that time it is too late to turn back.

On the other hand, the benefits of vitamin therapy are often prompt and unmistakable. The only obstacle to common-sense recognition of the benefits of food, without which we can not be healthy and cannot live at all, is an overly skeptical form of thinking that demands statistical proof in all things. To quote again from the Times: “Until, and unless, long-term studies are performed on large numbers of healthy people who are randomly assigned to take supplements or placebos, the evidence remains indefinite.” No argument with that, but here is the rub: “Given the enormous cost of studies that are years long, the definitive studies may never be conducted.”

Now what are we to do: permit a quixotic ideal to prevail over our common sense or go on as people have always done, look in all directions, ask questions, observe, study—and try any reasonable approach to health. In this case, there are about 100 million people taking vitamins. Are they stupid? Are they dying of vitamin overdoses? The answer is: absolutely not. Vitamins are among the safest substances that enter our bodies. They have an exceptional record of safety, even at megadose. The same cannot be said for pharmaceuticals, which are known to causes thousands of deaths every year due to unexpected adverse effects and overdose toxicity. At least when vitamins do cause adverse effects, these are almost always obvious and reversible upon cutting back the dose. Even vitamin A, which is widely propagandized against, is so safe that there are hardly any tragedies to report.

On the other hand, the good that vitamins do is often so spectacular that even the experts are astounded. In this same article we are informed of a study that proved vitamin E megadose could prevent cholesterol deposition on artery walls and protect against blood clots that otherwise blockade arterial circulation. Vitamin E therapy at doses over 150 mg per day has been shown to reduce heart attack deaths by almost 50 percent. More recently, a study of 600 men found total cancer deaths reduced by half after supplementation with selenium at about 3 times the recommended dose of 70 mcg. In addition cancers of prostate, esophagus, colon and lung were dramatically reduced. That doesn’t sound like much of a gamble. Quite the contrary: the greater risk falls on those who do not take nutrient supplements.

What makes my blood boil the more at this informative but negatively biased article, is the act that the diets of most Americans do not satisfy the government recommended Dietary Intakes. In fact, the 1987 Food Consumption Survey, which studied almost 6000 adults found that only one in five made food choices that provided as much as two-thirds of the government recommended amounts. That means that the odds of dietary inadequacy are over 80 percent! Why on earth would anyone discourage Americans from using vitamin-mineral supplements as nutrition insurance?! The real gamble is not with vitamins. Just reading this misleading article on “Vitamania” is actually gambling with people’s lives.

©2007 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.