(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think many people will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: Every once in a while I come across something that makes it seem like vitamins aren’t actually safe, or healthy or even good for you to be taking in the first place. As someone who takes a Vitamin D, calcium and fish oil, this concerns me.
In fact, just this week I saw an article in the newspaper that talked about a new study which found that women who take certain vitamins had an increased risk of death. Is this really true? Are the vitamins that are supposed to be helping us actually capable of killing us sooner?
ANSWER: Want to hear a secret? Unlike most of the questions that are asked to me and then answered on the site, this one wasn’t emailed to me. It was actually asked out-loud in real life by none other than my mom.
Yup, for real. I’m of course paraphrasing her question a bit to be more descriptive (she basically asked “what’s the deal with this study?”), but she gets full credit for the existence of this article. Thanks mom! Now about that question…
A New Study Shows Vitamins Are Killing Us All!!!!!
Every so often there’s a new study that comes out and gets picked up by the mainstream media for the purpose of accurately informing you about cold hard facts. And by “accurately informing you about cold hard facts,” I mean scaring the crap out of you with information they clearly have no real understanding of.
Hey, you gotta sell newspapers, get people to websites and improve newscast ratings somehow, right? More on this crap in a minute.
The specific vitamin study that has been all over the place recently looked at the long term health effects of a variety of vitamins and minerals that most people take under the assumption that they are totally safe and super good for you.
- PROS: The best qualities of this study BY FAR are that it was done long term… starting way back in 1986 and ending in 2008. Beyond that, the fact that there were 38,772 participants (all of which are described as “older women”) is also another big plus.
- CONS: Pretty much everything else about the design of this study sucks, starting with the fact that vitamin usage was “self-reported” in 1986, 1997, and 2004. Any time a nutrition related study uses “self-reporting,” it’s a good sign that you can take most of what it shows with a grain of salt. And speaking of what it shows… that’s the other big CON. Like many studies, it shows correlation, not causation. Let me explain…
This study “found” a few things, but the key finding seems to be that the women who reported supplementing with many of the common vitamins and minerals on the market today had an increased risk of death compared to the women who said they weren’t taking those same vitamins/minerals.
Yup, you read that correctly. Those totally safe vitamins you’re taking may not be so safe after all. In fact, instead of being good for you, vitamins are apparently killing us all!!
Well, not exactly…
The Real Results: Correlation Is Not Causation
You see, just because Thing A is associated with Thing B doesn’t automatically mean that Thing A causes Thing B.
There’s a HUGE difference between correlation and causation, and the dumbasses in the mainstream media and really the majority of the people who read and cite studies often fail to realize this difference.
What I mean is, in this study, there was a correlation between taking vitamins and dying sooner. But, that doesn’t automatically mean that taking vitamins CAUSED people to die sooner. It just means that the women who died sooner happened to be taking vitamins.
Why? Let’s think about it…
- Was it because they took vitamins and those vitamins directly increased their risk of death? This study doesn’t tell us that for sure.
- Was it because many people who have underlying health problems are more likely to take vitamins to (hopefully) help improve those health problems, and that maybe those people died sooner as a result of their health/medical problems and NOT the vitamins they took because of them? This study doesn’t tell us that either, but it leaves the possibility wide open.
- Was it because people who eat like crap and don’t exercise often take vitamins to (hopefully) make up for their unhealthy lifestyle, and that maybe it was this unhealthy lifestyle that caused these people to die sooner rather than the vitamins they were taking to counteract it? Once again, this study doesn’t tell us enough to know.
- Was it because people often take vitamins and think doing so magically affords them the ability to eat worse/exercise less, and this silly line of thinking resulted in the type of unhealthy lifestyle that can cause people to die sooner? Again, we don’t know.
See what I mean? Add in the always entertaining potential of “self-reporting” and the fact that individual differences and lifestyles weren’t controlled for (nor was which doses of which vitamins) and you end up with a study that, technically speaking, sucks balls.
But even ignoring the other drawbacks, the issues with correlation and causation alone is a problem that is common among many of the studies you see getting written about. They often tell us absolutely nothing, but they make it really easy for stupid people to think they do anyway.
Here’s another similar example…
A New Study Shows Skipping Breakfast Makes Us All Fat!!!!
Many misinformed people like to claim that skipping breakfast causes people to get fat according to various studies. In reality, studies only show a correlation between people skipping breakfast and people being fat.
Now is that because skipping breakfast magically causes fat to be gained? (hint: it doesn’t) Or is it because fat people tend to eat in an unorganized and uncontrolled fashion that results in too many calories being consumed, and one such example of this type of eating in a typical diet is skipping breakfast?
Or… maybe it’s just because fat people realize they need to eat less in order to lose that fat, so they purposely skip breakfast in hopes of it HELPING them make this happen?
Whatever it is, it’s not the actual act of skipping breakfast that directly causes people to get fat, it’s just that skipping breakfast is something fat people happen to do. Correlation is not causation.
(NOTE: It’s not really relevant here, but I should mention that I don’t actually think skipping breakfast is a bad thing at all as long as your total calorie and nutrient intake remains what it needs to be. More about that here: When Should You Eat?)
So, What’s The REAL Deal With Vitamins?
Now that you understand why this study is mostly horseshit in terms of telling us anything truly useful or concrete, you’re probably still wondering if vitamins actually are safe, healthy and good for you.
Well, that depends on a few things. For example:
- It Can Be Good
If you truly ARE deficient in a certain vitamin or mineral, then yes… supplementing that vitamin/mineral would probably be good for you. How “good” is impossible to say and would depend on the degree of your deficiency and the specific vitamin or mineral. Either way, if you’re not getting enough of something important, and you can’t fix this through your diet (which should always be solution #1), then supplementation can be beneficial.
- It Can Be Useless or Potentially Bad
If you’re NOT deficient in a certain vitamin or mineral and are therefore already getting a sufficient and ideal amount of it through your diet (like you should be), then supplementing additional amounts has not been shown to provide any additional benefits or be any more “healthy” or “good for you.” At best, it would probably just be an unnecessary waste. But at worst, you risk consuming too much of it (known as “megadosing”), and this is when the proven risks and toxicity problems can arise.
- It Can Be Good Or Bad
If you have some sort of health or medical condition or are taking any medications for it, then there’s a whole new set of factors to consider. The same goes for people of different ages and genders. In some cases certain vitamins and minerals can be EXTRA beneficial and “good for you” based on these factors (sometimes even in “megadoses”). In other cases, there could be interactions between these other factors and the vitamins/minerals in question that could potentially be dangerous for you.
So, like I said, it depends. As for me personally…
What I Take And Most Often Recommend
Like most people, I work indoors and don’t get as much direct exposure to sunlight as someone like a mailman or construction worker might. Not to mention, being out in the sun without sunscreen comes with its own potential risks. For this reason, I take a Vitamin D supplement.
I also hate milk and most dairy products (always have) and don’t really digest them very well. For this reason, I take a calcium supplement.
I also don’t eat much fatty fish on a regular basis, which means, like many people, I don’t consume much of the omega-3 fatty acids through my diet. For this reason, I take a fish oil supplement. (More here: Fish Oil Supplements)
But beyond that, I eat a fairly healthy diet loaded with a variety of vegetables and other high quality nutrient-dense foods and therefore likely end up getting a sufficient amount of everything my body needs on a daily basis. For this reason, I have no legitimate need to supplement other vitamins or minerals.
As for what I’d recommend, it’s pretty simple. Put 100% of your focus on getting everything your body needs through a diet that is primarily comprised of a variety of healthy foods you enjoy.
And then, if there are still any “blanks” that need to be filled in based on the individual factors specific to you, consider using vitamin/mineral supplements to fill them. It would especially make sense to do so when those vitamins/minerals have legit research proven benefits (like Vitamin D, calcium and fish oil all do in my case).
Oh, and one other recommendation. The next time your local news claims: “A new study shows that [insert something here] is likely to kill you and everyone you love… tune it at 7:00 for the details!!” …be sure to get the full details before making any important decisions.