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Taking Your Vitamins

early november in season

Back in 2011, I wrote a post for Simple Green Frugal about  a study just published in a peer reviewed journal, that followed a sample of nearly 39,000 older American women all the way from 1986 till now, and came to the conclusion that “several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk”. Increased.

This week I saw another study that raises the same questions –  two papers in peer reviewed journals about how the Omega 3 fatty acid DHA  in fish oils in fish help lower blood pressure, but DHA ethyl ester, the kind of Omega 3 DHA found in most fish oil pills,  not only doesn’t work but takes you backwards, using up the binding sites that real DHA would have used and blocking them.

Both studies are real, peer reviewed science. And yet there are hundreds and hundreds of studies that show the disease preventative effect of a whole range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and major nutrients. It seems they only work when they are in real food.The original post back in 2011 led me on a bit of a research binge. A study of 161,808 participants over 8 years in the Women’s Health Initiative clinical trials “provided convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD [cardiovascular disease], or total mortality in postmenopausal women.” A study of 182,099 participants enrolled in the Multiethnic Cohort Study after 11 years of follow-up found “no associations were found between multivitamin use and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer”.  And there’s a batch of supporting studies of smaller groups.

So why do we spend such a fortune on multivitamins, fish oil capsules, and vitamin enriched food? Why do we go for the breakfast cereal with “added vitamins and minerals” over the plain old rolled oats? Why the bread with “added fibre”?  When all the solid evidence is that if you eat a good balanced diet of real food, supplements won’t do a thing, and if you don’t, they won’t do a thing either.

There’s good data that Australians spend something like A$4 billion  a year – $4 billion – on complementary and alternative medicines. Some of it is real medicine, prescribed by a naturopath or someone competent, to treat a condition and there’s plenty of evidence for the benefit of that. But the majority is vitamins and supplements people buy themselves, just to feel more secure.

At the same time, at least in Australia, the cost of living is a major political issue, with people stressing about the cost of food, and farmers squeezed by the big supermarkets by prices that leave them no margin for a long term view of landcare.  We won’t pay what it really costs to produce real food, when there’s good scientific evidence that it keeps you healthy, but we will pay scammy amounts of money for industrially made supplements and pills, when there’s good science that it doesn’t work.  Duh!

And maybe the two are, in an unhealthy way, related.  The more we worry that the food we are buying isn’t real, isn’t healthy whole food produced with care for people and the environment, the more we indulge in superstitious practices we just hope will somehow help.

If I could just get that $4 billion a year and invest it in the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and then in keeping the Liverpool Plains for growing muesli rather than coal seam gas, and then after that in protecting marine environments from fertilizer run off, maybe we would feel happier about the price of real food.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • ronnie April 4, 2013, 8:03 pm

    oh amen! to everything said…. and thank you

    lets pick real food over fake pills and CSG production every day of the week

  • Gavin Webber April 5, 2013, 12:20 am

    Totally agree Linda. Real food, not supplements!

    Better to suck a real, home-grown lemon, than swallow a Vitamin C tablet.

    Gav x

  • Allana April 5, 2013, 12:36 am

    Yes, yes, yes!! This is exactly what a told my midwife recently when she asked if I was taking any prenatel supplements.. no! I’m eating well!
    As for societies short sighted environmental views… I hear you! Can we grow up and stop living for today and actually make decisions our great great great grandchildren can be proud of! Sigh…

  • kim April 5, 2013, 6:18 am

    I agree, Linda. A very informative post as always.

  • melissa April 5, 2013, 7:49 am

    Totally agree Linda. You should be prime minister!! I’d vote for you.

  • Joy April 5, 2013, 6:00 pm

    My eye specialist told me to take fish oil to help keep macular degeneration at bay. My diet is full of fresh, often homegrown, vegies, and fish alternative days but I have always reasoned that it didn’t do any harm to take them and I was doing what I was told (I usually do, makes for a quiet life :)) Now what do I do with that large container of fish oil tabs? Hmm. Joy

  • Cheryl April 5, 2013, 7:19 pm

    Hi Linda, I have been reading your blog for a good while now, but I don’t think I have commented before. I found my head enthusiastically bobbing up and down in agreement with everything you wrote. I have long held a gut instinct that eating the real source of the vitamins and minerals was far better for good health, and your post has delivered me the proof. Thankyou so much.

  • marjon April 6, 2013, 12:13 pm

    Ooooh YESSS!! Common sense in the wilderness. Very refreshing 🙂

  • Liz April 6, 2013, 10:09 pm

    Fascinating stuff. I don’t take vitamin supplements personally but I do occasionally console myself when they don’t eat their greens, that at least their breakfast cereal had some vitamins in it. Guess I’ll just have to persuade them silver beet really is delicious….

  • Linda April 7, 2013, 6:32 am

    Yep! I vote Linda Woodrow for Prime Minister.

  • annie April 8, 2013, 6:44 am

    Yeah – Linda for PM! This is my FAVOURITE post of yours. Ever. Thank you.

  • Leonie April 8, 2013, 9:19 am

    Linda I agree with you 95%. The problem is that many people can only eat industrially produced food. Long shelf life means the fruit and veg are missing the vit C that fresh picked home vegies are packed with. Industrial fertilisers like superphosphate concentrate phosphorus in the food, which when consumed depleat magnesium as the body tries to balance itself.

    There is no substitute for fresh picked, naturally grown home veggies.

    Thankyou for the info on fish oils. That is a revelation!

  • Leonie April 8, 2013, 9:24 am

    I would be interested to hear what you thought about sushi and seaweed as a supplement for people living inland far from the coast.

  • Linda April 8, 2013, 4:36 pm

    I know what you mean Leonie. I have a friend who works in a very remote indigenous community, where access to traditional foods is denied and fresh food is hard to get. There are circumstances where people are caught between a rock and a hard place. But for most of us, we shop and choose whether to buy the real carrots with dirt still on them from the farmers market, admittedly relatively expensive because carrots are not the easiest vegetable to grow sustainably in commercial quantities, or the oven bake chips that look cheaper but aren’t

    I don’t know enough about seaweed to talk knowledgeably. I love sushi and make it every so often for us, but I have heard and read odd comments about heavy metals….does anyone else have some good information sources?

  • Jayne April 10, 2013, 8:03 am

    When you start to see big names like Nicole Kidman advertising such supplements – you know big bucks are changing hands. Why are these companies allowed to advertise when drug companies cannot? Why is this industry not regulated? I think this is a huge issue and I hope there is more public discussion and disclosure of the real scientific facts. Thanks for talking about it Linda.

  • Jason Dingley April 16, 2013, 3:02 pm

    I have always been a big supporter of the real-food vs supplements. However recently after two colds in a row I found myself surcomming to pressure and taking vitamin C supplements. Thanks to this post I am going to stop. I have also started increasing the amount of raw and green leaf vegetable I eat.

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