Check the Data: Vitamin Supplements

This study highlights a number of things I like to emphasize. One, of course, is something I’ve thought since I managed the Staff O’ Life Nutrition Center in Columbus, Georgia when I was in my late teens. Eating a good diet is a better plan than using cabinet’s full of supplements. Fortunately for me, the store was operated by people who took the same view.

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But you also need to read each study carefully. News articles—and this is a news story, not the text of the study—tend to put the most exciting material up front. Since people often don’t read to the end of an article, often stopping at the headline, they can get very slanted ideas.

At the end of the article, you get this quote:

A minor limitation in the study could be seen to be its broad focus. John Funder, from Monash University, points out that the study does not suggest vitamin or mineral supplements are useless in clinical cases where a patient actively needs those supplements.

This is why people think studies are inaccurate or that they should ignore science as contradictory. What this study suggests is not that nobody needs vitamin supplements. It is that supplements taken by a broad population without a specific need identified, do not increase longevity. So if your doctor finds you need a supplement, this study should not be used to resist taking that supplement. As an example, my dad (an MD) told me that Vegans can have a B12 deficiency, so if I was to stay away from all dairy products, I should consider taking a supplement. This study isn’t a refutation of his statement. He’d agree with the study in general.

Further, study study notes a potential negative impact of taking Niacin. Again, this is a general finding over a large population, not screened for a need for Niacin. If you are deficient, I suspect your doctor would urge you to take the supplement.

So I see it as a valuable lesson in both eating, maintaining your personal health, and how to read news stories.

Oh, and yes, most important: This isn’t the study. It’s a news story about the study. Note the link to the abstract of the actual study at the end. That link is both valuable in itself and also as an indicator of the diligence of the story writers. Beware unsourced information!

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