Sometimes the simplest answer is the best one. Case in point: Researchers have repeatedly confirmed what many have considered a “no-brainer” for decades…
A well-balanced diet is the secret to better health and freedom from cancer. But what about supplements? Let’s look at some of the research on supplements and cancer and what it means to you.
Every day you make decisions about what you’ll eat, and whether you’re committed to taking your supplements. Those decisions may radically affect the state of your health as you age.
In one of the most famous studies on diet and cancer, Harvard researchers followed nearly 15,000 male doctors aged fifty and older. They found that taking a daily multivitamin could reduce cancer rates by approximately eight percent.
Now eight percent may not sound significant, but as Dr. Demetrius Albanes of the National Cancer Institute pointed out, “If you think of the hundreds of thousands of new cases of cancer every year, eight percent can add up to quite a bit.”
Another reason to take your vitamins…
Indeed, it may be enough of a reduction to make it worth popping a daily multivitamin. Now, personally, I prefer to take each vitamin in an individual pill rather than take a multi. But a multi is better than nothing, as this new study demonstrates.
This study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), was different than many other studies on supplements versus cancer risk in several ways. First of all, many large studies weren’t placebo-controlled. They just observed what the subjects of the study were doing of their own choice. In this study, the participants were assigned either a multivitamin or a placebo (without knowing which they were getting).
This eliminated one of the main problems with the older studies. It could be that people who take supplements are a relatively healthy group to begin with. They tend to eat a healthful and varied diet, stay physically active, and watch their weight. But, in this study, the men were assigned either vitamins or a placebo. They didn’t choose. So, their own choices didn’t have much bearing on the overall outcome.
It’s never too late to start taking vitamins
Secondly, the JAMA study looked at men only, not women. These were all men over 50, not a cross-section of age groups. In fact, the men they studied were, on average, age 65 or older. They were followed for a long time — 11 years — which is longer than many such studies and involved sufficient time for plenty of new cases of cancer to develop in a large group of older men.
Aside from being confined to men — a regrettable limitation — this was a type of long-term clinical study that’s considered highly reliable at determining cause and effect.
One group took a daily Centrum Silver® capsule. The other group took placebos. They didn’t know which pill they were receiving. The study lasted long enough to produce meaningful results. And in the end, the vitamin group suffered less cancer than the placebo group.
So, all you have to do is pop a pill and you’ve cut your chances of getting cancer by eight percent?
I think that’s probably pretty accurate, but critics still aren’t prepared to accept the cancer-fighting value of vitamins.
Here’s where the issue gets muddier…
The cancer-fighting value of vitamins
isn’t real, say critics
While the study appears to be well-designed and lengthy enough, critics point out that these men were all doctors— that they were a homogeneous, well-educated group, and were less racially, economically, and ethnically diverse than the general population. And the group contained far fewer smokers. Those are all valid criticisms. Meaning, this one study can’t be the last word on the value of multivitamins.
Marji McCullough, a nutritional epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society suggested we should conduct similar studies of women, smokers, and others before generalizing.
True enough, but I’m not waiting for more proof (there are, in fact, thousands of other studies to show the value of vitamins).
Although Pfizer says it did not fund the study, the big drug company did supply the Centrum Silver® multivitamins used in the study. (Centrum Silver® is a Pfizer product.) What’s interesting is that the corporation then greatly downplayed the study’s results, presumably because their vitamin products play second fiddle in profit potential to their blockbuster anti-cancer drugs.
One of the oddest things is that the authors of the Harvard study announced it with a press release that made a snarky attack on other studies that focused on taking large doses of just one or two vitamins, versus a multivitamin that covers nearly all the bases.
According to the authors of the Harvard study, the other studies showed that huge doses of individual vitamins were not effective as a cancer preventive.
Now, I must put a big, big asterisk on this statement.
Individual vitamins DO fight cancer, too
There are MANY individual studies showing vitamin D — at the very least — is an effective cancer preventive. And indeed, the value of vitamin D is now widely accepted by mainstream medicine.
Other individual vitamins have been effective in reducing certain types of cancer. For example, folate, a B vitamin, reduces the risk of colon cancer.
Vitamin C is a priceless cancer preventive AND a valuable treatment for those who already have cancer when taken either orally or via an intravenous route. In fact, large doses of vitamin C, given intravenously, may be one of the most valuable cancer treatments on earth.
I don’t advocate treating any one vitamin as a magic bullet against cancer though. You should take them all, in the appropriate doses. But I’m troubled that the authors of the Harvard study made inaccurate statements about the value of individual nutrients in fighting cancer.
But there’s one thing we can all agree on…
Don’t use multivitamins as an antidote to
sloppy dietary habits
It should be obvious that a well-balanced diet is the secret to better health, and that your body runs best on real foods rich in nutrients — mostly vegetables, some fruit, healthy fats, and free-range organic eggs.
As David Katz, former director of the Yale Preventive Research Center, who was not involved in the JAMA study, pointed out, “Maybe the active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli.” But he follows that statement with the observation, “Clearly… taking a multivitamin is easy, changing dietary patterns is hard.”
It begs the question, why do the researchers think multivitamins succeeded in reducing the cancer rate by eight percent?
Why vitamins work
The Harvard researchers theorize that the broad combination of low-dose vitamins and minerals contained in the Centrum Silver® multivitamin may have filled in nutritional gaps from a relatively poor diet.
That suggests a question: If a multivitamin prevents cancer because it provides a mix of nutrients similar to food, why not just eat more fruits and vegetables and skip the multivitamin?
Okay, I get that you shouldn’t use a multivitamin as a remedy for a nutrient-poor Standard American Diet, or as a replacement for eating high quality fruits and veggies. But only 1.5 percent of Americans get their full recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables. A multivitamin pill is better than nothing.
Another consideration… neither plant-based foods nor animal foods are as nutrient-rich as they were fifty or a hundred years ago, due to soil depletion and one-crop farming.
Nutrients can also be—and are—destroyed during cooking. And inadequate absorption can sabotage you even further, leaving your cells begging for missing nutrients. (In fairness, absorption can also be an issue with supplements.)
But just as importantly, if you’re not eating a varied and minimally cooked diet, you’re almost certain to have deficiencies. Even if you eat right most of the time, nearly everyone slips up from time to time.
A multivitamin helps you cover your bases. Like a life insurance policy. And based on this study, it seems to have few downsides.
Gladys Block, professor of public health and nutrition at the University of California-Berkeley states, “I really believe that essentially everybody can benefit from a multivitamin.” That’s precisely why millions of Americans take them.
Here’s another thing to consider when you make your decision about multivitamins…not all vitamins are created equal!
Indeed, there can be some downright radical differences among the many, many different brands.
The Centrum Silver® vitamins used in this study were made by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, so you can pretty much guarantee they were made in a lab.
Personally, I prefer vitamins and antioxidants that are extracted from plants with minimal processing. And, as I mentioned earlier, I take each vitamin in its own pill rather than a multivitamin.
I take far more vitamin C than you’re going to find in any multivitamin. Ditto for vitamins B, D, and E. In my view, 2000 IU of vitamin D is the minimum, especially for older people, and I mean D3, not the inferior D2 that’s found in many multivitamins and used to “fortify” milk.
I also take vitamin K, an extremely valuable vitamin that’s almost never included in a multi. (It so happens Centrum Silver does contain vitamin K.) I take a much larger dose of vitamin B12 than you’ll get in a multi, and I take it sublingually (under the tongue), for better absorption. I take a high-quality form of vitamin E (eight forms of vitamin E are found in nature). I doubt if the dose or quality of E in a multivitamin is worth much.
On a day when I eat a lot of food rich in beta-carotene, such as carrots or sweet potatoes, I might skip the vitamin A and beta-carotene pills. On a day when I’m not eating right, I might take more.
In short, multivitamins don’t cut it. They’re better than nothing, but that’s about all.
My standard for supplements
Instead of choosing a supplement that’s made in a lab, choose your supplements carefully. Here’s what I suggest…
Whenever possible, buy food-based supplements whether you’re buying a multivitamin or an individual vitamin. Note that Big Pharma probably calls its multivitamins “food-grade.” But here, I’m talking about supplements that are derived from real foods — broccoli, sea vegetables, green tea, and the many other wonderful plants that provide such rich nutrition.
Taking this a step further, you might want to consider organic, non-GMO, and soy-free, just as you may already choose for the food you eat.
Yes, food-derived vitamins may cost more, but they may also help you avoid the collateral damage of a “drug-style” supplement. Food is, after all, what your body is designed to burn for fuel.
Secondly, as much as possible, check your vitamin labels for excipients. These are additional ingredients that do nothing to enhance your health and may in fact harm it. They include flow agents and other things that are a convenience or reduce costs for the manufacturer.
If you’re going to spend money on supplements, why not make the commitment to select those that won’t add any collateral damage to your wellbeing?