The nutritional supplement industry is huge. Starting from fairly modest beginnings in the 1980s, in the US alone it has become a $32 billion dollar a year gold mine. Unfortunately the industry got an unintended boost from the 1982 National Academy of Sciences report on diet, nutrition and cancer, co-authored by Prof T Colin Campbell. The report recommended increased intake of fruits, vegetable and whole grains due to their excellent nutritional content. The report also explicitly stated that this was not to be used as a recommendation to use isolated nutrients in supplement form.
Unfortunately, the supplement industry forcefully argued otherwise, using quotes out of context from the report to support the argument. The US Federal Trade commission reviewed the situation and made a decision that the health claims of the industry were “inappropriate”. This decision was ignored by the industry, which pushed on regardless, driven by a huge profit motive.
Nutrition is an extremely complex process involving thousands of chemicals and effects on your health. It therefore does not make sense that isolating these nutrients and taking them as supplements can substitute for eating real food. More importantly, unfortunately, people often defer making any significant changes to their overall diet, hoping that by popping one (or twenty) pills a day they have covered all their nutritional bases!
Taking high levels of vitamin supplements does not confer the same benefits as eating high levels of these vitamins from natural foods. We also know that taking vitamins in extremely high doses of supplements can cause serious harm. High intakes of vitamin A are linked to greater risk of hip fracture as well as other health risks.
To give you a sad but illuminating example: Epidemiological studies have shown that people with higher blood levels of beta carotene (from foods in their diet) had lower incidence of lung cancer. In a tragic turn, smokers took part in two clinical trials which tested whether supplementing with high dose beta carotene would therefore prevent lung cancer.
In the Finnish ATBC study of 29 000 male smokers, supplementing with betacarotene over 6 years was linked to increased rates of lung cancer! In the US CARET study of more than 18 000 male and female smokers and male asbestos workers, supplementing over four years was linked to a 28% higher risk of lung cancer and a 17 % higher risk of deaths from all causes compared with smokers taking a placebo.
Both studies were halted due to these sobering findings. In follow up studies unfortunately, it has been seen that the study participants continue to suffer damage. Even after stopping the supplements, the higher risk of lung cancer and death has continued.This lingering risk was higher in female smokers for some reason.
This is only one example of when taking supplements can do much more harm than good. This is not always the case, for example for B12 and vitamin D, to be discussed in future articles.