As I walked through the checkout line at the grocery store, my eyes fell on the cover of the April 2010 issue of Reader’s Digest. It was hard to miss. The words “THE VITAMIN SCAM” in big, bold, red letters almost jumped off the page. Then right below it in a bright blue circle was the instruction to “Read this before you pop another pill!”
Since I spend quite a few hours each week studying and writing about the research behind various vitamins and supplements, I was anxious to get home and see what this article had to say. Sadly, I discovered that this once highly-respected periodical had resorted to tabloid tactics – using a sensational headline on the cover to entice readers to buy the magazine.
And when I opened the magazine, I discovered that the article inside was poorly sourced and bore little resemblance to the tantalizing headline plastered across the cover.
Uncovering the Real “Truths and Lies”
The article, written by Christie Aschwanden, was entitled, “Vitamin Truths & Lies.”(1) It listed five “myths” about vitamins, explaining why they were not true… then ended with one truth. Let’s take an in-depth look at these so-called myths and the evidence used to support RD’s claims that vitamins are a waste of money.
RD Myth #1: A multivitamin can make up for a bad diet.
Well, duh! I don’t know anyone who thinks you can eat whatever you like and then just take a multivitamin and expect to be healthy. Anyone with a little common sense knows it’s important to eat a well-balanced diet. One of the main reasons for taking multivitamins in addition to eating well is to help replace some of the nutrients that have been stripped from the overly-processed food found in today’s markets.
On top of starting with an absurd premise, the study they used to “prove” their point had serious flaws. According to the article, “a long term study of more than 160,000 midlife women…showed that multivitamin-takers are no healthier than those who don’t pop the pills, at least when it comes to the big diseases – cancer, heart disease, stroke.”
What they failed to tell you was that this “study” was not what we normally think of as a clinical trial. Participants were not given high-quality multivitamins daily for several years. Instead it was an interview which included women who said they took at least one multivitamin a week – it didn’t matter what kind or quality of multivitamin. After eight years, data on the incidence of specific cancers, heart disease and stroke were gathered and compared.(1)
I can’t help but think this study was designed to fail. Why would anyone logically expect that someone who took a cheap, synthetic multivitamin once a week would experience a significant decrease in risk of major diseases? It just doesn’t make sense. But media outlets like the Reader’s Digest were only too happy to use it as “evidence” that multivitamins provide no benefits.
Speaking of not making sense… after three paragraphs of explaining how multivitamins are worthless, they concluded by saying that women of reproductive age should take a multivitamin to help prevent birth defects. So much for Myth #1.
RD Myth #2: Vitamin C is a cold fighter.
In an effort to support their contention that vitamin C doesn’t help the body fight colds, a 2007 review that compiled data from several smaller studies was cited. In these studies, participants took only about 200 mg of vitamin C each day. Some took it all the time and others only after the onset of cold symptoms. Once again, there was no control or consistency as to the type and quality of vitamin C used. Not surprisingly, the study concluded that vitamin C did not reduce the incidence of colds in the normal population, although it was effective for subgroups consisting of marathon runners, skiers and soldiers on sub-arctic exercises.(2)
What the author didn’t bother to mention was that this review was updated in February 2010. The update specifically noted that the data used in the original review were based on intakes of vitamin C far below the levels actually thought to be helpful.
Another thing the RD article neglected to mention was other studies that used higher doses of vitamin C – like the 1999 study of more than 700 students. In this study, participants reporting cold symptoms were given 1,000 mg of vitamin C each hour for the first six hours and then three times daily thereafter. Those without symptoms were given 1,000 mg three times a day. The control group with cold symptoms was treated with pain relievers and decongestants. In the end, the students receiving the megadoses of vitamin C reported 85% fewer cold and flu symptoms than the control group.(3)
What these studies show is that while low doses of vitamin C may not help us fight colds, higher doses can be very effective in supporting the body’s ability to fend off and reduce the symptoms of colds.
RD Myth #3: Vitamin pills can prevent heart disease.
The basic tactic used throughout this article was to completely ignore studies that had a positive result and make general statements about studies that didn’t pan out – without giving enough specifics for the reader to judge the validity of the studies. When it came to how vitamins might relate to risk of heart disease, the author alluded to studies that purportedly indicated vitamins C, E, B6, B12 and folate were not helpful in supporting reduced risk of heart disease.
Just a couple of the studies relating to cardiovascular health that the author chose to ignore included:
• A CoQ-10 study of 109 patients in which 51% were able to stop taking between one and three antihypertensive medications an average of 4.4 months after starting CoQ-10 supplementation.(5)
• A study in which 10 healthy participants took 500 mg of curcumin (turmeric) each day for seven days. At the end of the week, they had:
– A 33% decrease in the blood levels of oxidized cholesterol.
– An 11.63% decrease in total serum cholesterol.
– A 29% increase in HDL (‘good’) cholesterol.(6)
The jury is still out on how helpful some vitamins (like C and E) might be in supporting reduced heart disease risk. Some studies have had positive results while others have shown no difference. But there’s little doubt that other supplements, like CoQ-10, curcumin and vitamin D3, can be beneficial in supporting cardiovascular health.
RD Myth #4: Taking vitamins can protect against cancer.
A 2008 study, which concluded that a combination of folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 supplementation had no significant effect on overall risk of invasive or breast cancer among women, was cited as proof that vitamins can’t bolster the body’s natural defenses against cancer. While there may have been no reduction in cancer risk for women as a whole, what they neglected to mention was that, for women over 65, there was:
• A 25% reduction in the risk of invasive cancer,
• And a 38% reduction in the risk of breast cancer.(6)
They also conveniently omitted multiple other studies providing evidence that a number of different vitamins can support reduced cancer risk. For example:
• In a 2007 study of 1,179 women, the incidence of several types of cancer was as much as 77% lower in those supplementing with a combination of calcium and vitamin D3.(7)
• A new study, presented last week at the American Association for Cancer Research’s 101st Annual Meeting 2010, linked vitamin and calcium supplementation with an apparent 30% to 40% reduction in breast cancer risk.(8)
• Another supplement that has been strongly linked to reduced cancer risk is curcumin, the primary component of the spice tumeric. According to the American Cancer Society, “A growing body of laboratory research suggests the spice turmeric has potent anticancer activity – and researchers have launched a slew of human trials to find out just how powerful it may be.”(9) Laboratory and animal studies suggest that curcumin may help the body prevent, control the spread of, or kill several types of cancer including breast, skin, colon and prostate cancers. It is also being tested vis-a-vis other cancers such as metastatic melanoma, mantle cell lymphoma, multiple myeloma and advanced pancreatic cancer.(10-18)
And so Myth #4 bites the dust – it seems that taking certain vitamins may indeed help the body protect against cancer.
RD Myth #5: Hey, it can’t hurt.
The article went so far as to say that, not only are vitamins not helpful, but they can actually hurt you. This contention was primarily based on a 2004 study designed to find out if beta-carotene (vitamin A) was effective in preventing lung cancer. The researchers were surprised to discover that instead of preventing lung cancer, the beta carotene actually seemed to increase the incidence of lung cancer by 28% and overall mortality by 17%.(19)
We’ve long known that getting too much vitamin A can be dangerous, and this study certainly provides another good reason to avoid over-supplementing with it. But surmising that because too much of one particular vitamin may be bad for you, you shouldn’t take any vitamins at all is a bit like (to use my grandmother’s expression) throwing out the baby with the bath water. There is a tremendous amount of research supporting the benefits of vitamins and other supplements to promote better health.
RD TRUTH #1: A pill that’s worth taking.
Finally, in a complete turn-around from the previous ‘vitamins are worthless’ stance, the article acknowledges the importance of vitamin D supplementation and recommends that most people take at least 1,000 IU of vitamin D each day.
Even though they had previously said vitamins can’t prevent heart disease or protect against cancer, they support their vitamin D recommendation by telling of research suggesting that it cuts the risk of heart attack in half for men, and lowers the risk of at least half a dozen cancers. Yes, they completely contradicted themselves, but at least this time they got it right.
The Truth Behind the Purported “Scam”
A scam is defined as “a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation” and constitutes a pretty serious accusation. Although Reader’s Digest boldly proclaimed vitamins to be a scam on their cover, their article failed to show any evidence of fraud or deception. On the other hand, they did pull something of a scam on their readers by printing such a deceptive headline.
I’m deeply disappointed in Reader’s Digest for publishing such a blatantly biased article. At best, they’ve done a great disservice to their readers. At worst, I fear they may have compromised the health of people who counted on them to be an honest and trustworthy publication – all for the sake of a cheap headline and the sale of a few more magazines.
1. Aschwanden, Christie. (2010, April). Vitamin truths and lies. Reader’s Digest, 86-91.
2. Neuhouser, ML, et al. Multivitamin Use and Risk of Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease in the Women’s Health Initiative Cohorts. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Feb 9;169(3):294-304.
3. Douglas RM, et al. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;(3):CD000980.
4. Gorton HC, Jarvis K. The effectiveness of vitamin C in preventing and relieving the symptoms of virus-induced respiratory infections. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 1999 Oct;22(8):530-3.
5. Langsjoen P. H., et al. Treatment of essential hypertension with coenzyme Q10. Molecular Aspects of Medicine. 1994; 15:S265-72.
6. Soni KB, Kuttan R. Effect of oral curcumin administration on serum peroxides and cholesterol levels in human volunteers. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 1992 Oct;36(4):273-5. 1992.
7. Zhang SM, et al. Effect of Combined Folic Acid, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin B12 on Cancer Risk: Results from a Randomized Trial. JAMA. 2008 November 5; 300(17): 2012–2021.
8. Lappe JM, et al. Vitamin D and calcium supplementation reduces cancer risk: results of a randomized trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 85, No. 6, 1586-1591, June 2007.
9. American Association for Cancer Research (2010, April 19). Vitamin and calcium supplements may reduce breast cancer risk.
10. A Cancer Treatment in the Spice Cabinet? American Cancer Society. January 3, 2006.
11. Aggarwal BB, et al. Curcumin Suppresses the Paclitaxel-Induced Nuclear Factor-?B Pathway in Breast Cancer Cells and Inhibits Lung Metastasis of Human Breast Cancer in Nude Mice. Clinical Cancer Research. October 2005. 11;7490.
12. Kakarala M, et al. Targeting breast stem cells with the cancer preventive compounds curcumin and piperine. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2009 Nov 7.
13. Wang BM, et al. The inhibitory effect of curcumin on the proliferation of HT-29 colonic cancer cell induced by deoxycholic acid. Zhonghua Nei Ke Za Zhi. 2009 Sep;48(9):760-3.
14. Patel BB, et al. Synergistic role of curcumin with current therapeutics in colorectal cancer: minireview. Nutr Cancer. 2009 Nov;61(6):842-6.
15. Yoysungnoen P, et al. Anti-cancer and anti-angiogenic effects of curcumin and tetrahydrocurcumin on implanted hepatocellular carcinoma in nude mice. World J Gastroenterol. 2008 Apr 7;14(13):2003-9.
16. Dorai T, et al. Therapeutic potential of curcumin in human prostate cancer. III. Curcumin inhibits proliferation, induces apoptosis, and inhibits angiogenesis of LNCaP prostate cancer cells in vivo. Prostate. 2001;47(4):293-303.
17. Dorai T, et al. Therapeutic potential of curcumin in human prostate cancer. II. Curcumin inhibits tyrosine kinase activity of epidermal growth factor receptor and depletes the protein. Mol Urol. 2000;4(1):1-6.
18. Gilienke W, et al. Curcumin inhibits constitutive STAT3 phosphorylation in human pancreatic cancer cell lines and downregulation of survivin/BIRC5 gene expression. Cancer Invest. 2010 Feb;28(2):166-71.
19. Xiao H, et al. Reversal of multidrug resistance by curcumin through FA/BRCA pathway in multiple myeloma cell line MOLP-2/R. Ann Hematol. 2010 Apr;89(4):399-404. Epub 2009 Sep 15.
20. Goodman GE, et al. The Beta-Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial: incidence of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality during 6-year follow-up after stopping beta-carotene and retinol supplements. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2004 Dec 1;96(23):1743-50.
* Karen Lee Richards is Lead Expert specializing in Fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, for HealthCentral’s ChronicPainConnection (www.chronicpainconnection.com). Karen is co-founder of the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and was Executive Editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine for four years.
Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is general information and is not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any condition, illness, or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.