Stop taking a multi-vitamin?

So, when I was a kid, my mom was way convinced by Linus Pauling of the importance of large doses of Vitamin C– especially for fighting off colds.  Turns out they were both wrong.  That said, given my poor diet for most of my childhood, I truly think I might have gotten scurvy if not for the vitamin C supplementation.   At some point as a young adult, I realized that I was surely missing plenty more nutrients due to my picky eating and started taking a daily multivitamin, which I’ve been doing for at least 20 years or so.

Turns out, I may be increasing risks to my health as a result.  At minimum, there’s basically no evidence that multi-vitamins lead to improved health.  Paul Offit summarized the evidence in the Atlantic:

Studies have shown that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of cancer and heart disease and live longer. The logic is obvious: if fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants — and people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables are healthier — then people who take supplemental antioxidants should also be healthier.

In fact, they’re less healthy.

Offit then provides brief summaries of about a dozen or so studies– here’s two particularly compelling ones:

In 2007, researchers from the National Cancer Institute examined 11,000 men who did or didn’t take multivitamins. Those who took multivitamins were twice as likely to die from advanced prostate cancer.

In 2008, a review of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did or did not receive supplemental antioxidants found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.

So, what’s going on?  Scientists aren’t sure, but here’s the main idea:

How could this be? Given that free radicals clearly damage cells — and given that people who eat diets rich in substances that neutralize free radicals are healthier — why did studies of supplemental antioxidants show they were harmful? The most likely explanation is that free radicals aren’t as evil as advertised. Although it’s clear that free radicals can damage DNA and disrupt cell membranes, that’s not always a bad thing. People need free radicals to kill bacteria and eliminate new cancer cells. But when people take large doses of antioxidants, the balance between free radical production and destruction might tip too much in one direction, causing an unnatural state in which the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders. Researchers have called this “the antioxidant paradox.” Whatever the reason, the data are clear: high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of heart disease and cancer; for this reason, not a single national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends them.

At this point, I think I’ll finish my current bottle of Target multi-vitamins, but then I’m done.  Also, I eat way healthier than I used to and am not so worried about meeting basic nutritional needs.  I used to have almost now fruits and vegetables, but now I have pretty much 5-6 servings a day (yay for me).  At least for the time being, though, I’m going to keep the kids on the multi-vitamin.  Yes, I know I need to try harder to get them to eat healthy, but until we make more progress there I think they need the multis just to meet basic dietary needs.

Anyway, as much as part of me wants to keep taking the vitamins, I very much consider myself an “evidence-based person” and I just cannot deny the weight of the evidence on this.

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Photo of the day

Back to the National Geographic tumblr.  Wow.

A bright orange river of sparks cascades from a high cliff in Yosemite National Park, May 1958.Photograph by J. Baylor Roberts, National Geographic

A bright orange river of sparks cascades from a high cliff in Yosemite National Park, May 1958.
PHOTOGRAPH BY J. BAYLOR ROBERTS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Pulling up the ladder

Wow.  Rob Christensen has clearly had enough.  He’s just unleashed on the NC legislature the last few weeks. And this from a guy who’s been writing about NC politics for decades without any hint of partisan inclinations.  And don’t think about skipping this column (really, read all of it) because you’re not from NC, this is a great distillation of the philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans:

People often draw different lessons when they rise through the American class system. For some, their success is proof that through hard work and discipline anybody can better themselves, and they want to pull the ladder up behind them. Others see all the help they got along the way – the public schools, the public universities, the student loans – and want to make sure that other people have the same opportunities. I can’t speak for Berger, but I fall into the latter category…

Berger, as much as anyone, is the intellectual and political leader of the conservative revolution in the Legislature.

I know he is worried about the people we grew up with. He writes about his own struggles to obtain the American dream and notes North Carolina’s high unemployment rate.

“Sadly,” Berger writes, “today that opportunity is slipping for many. Hopes and dreams for a better tomorrow are fading.”

Berger is dead on.

And a big reason why this is happening? Berger continues: “Our broken tax system.”

Here is where the two of us part.

I would bet if you got 10 reputable economists in a room and asked what the biggest reason for North Carolina’s persistent unemployment problem is, none of them would say, “Our broken tax system,” – unless they were in the tank with some conservative group.

First, the fact that Berger is, in fact, an intellectual leader of NC Republicans is really sad and tells you a lot.  Secondly, forget 10 reputable economists; let’s try 100.  This is just Republican theology that bears no resemblance to how the real world actually works.

Tax cuts for NC’s richest is absolutely, positively not a recipe for the future economic success of our state.  Investment in the people of the state is the key, but as rich people keep ever more of their money there’s less to invest in public education and infrastructure needs which are truly the key to NC’s future.  Just sad.

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