Multiples don’t prevent heart disease

Duh, who thought they did?

When it comes to nutrition, nothing makes me crazier than the idea that supplements have some sort of drug-like function.  I know it’s tempting to believe that you can cure yourself of all kinds of dire diseases by taking more of some nutrient, as if supplements are Drugs Lite.  No need for a prescription, just dose yourself, according to something you read on the internet.  The latest non-news concerns multiple vitamins.  Apparently they (gasp!) do not prevent heart attacks.  Did anyone think they would?  That would be like thinking changing the oil in your car will prevent an accident.

Nevertheless some group of researchers decided to spend time looking into this burning question.  According to one of the researchers:

It has been exceptionally difficult to convince people, including nutritional researchers, to acknowledge that multivitamin and mineral supplements don’t prevent cardiovascular diseases.

Really?  I know no one who ever believed that.  One rather hilarious comment after the linked article notes that statins don’t prevent scurvy, so… therefore don’t take statins?  Using this study’s logic, that would be your conclusion.

And why the focus only on heart disease? Is it the only important medical problem? What about diabetes, cancer, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, arthritis, dementias and any of a number of digestive diseases?  A very significant problem with this study is the lack of strict definition for the term “multiple”.  Anyone who has read the labels on multiple vitamin supplements knows that the formulas are all over the map in terms of (1) which nutrients are included and (2) the doses of those nutrients.  Some have trivial amounts of key nutrients; others have outrageous amounts of cheap nutrients to make the label look impressive (whoo hoo, 5000% of the daily recommendation for X!).

Of course, this isn’t the only study of this type.  For some reason, the medical research community is obsessed with using nutrients to cure diseases.  We get studies on whether vitamin D cures diabetes or vitamin C cures cancer.  Doctors are trained to prescribe drugs, so it’s easy for that mind-set to transfer to nutrients.  But nutrients are more about maintaining health, about keeping your metabolism running smoothly.

Plenty of studies show that people who take supplements tend to have healthy lifestyle habits anyway.  Use of multiples is more a marker for healthy behavior than a widespread attempt to prevent heart disease with supplements.  You could conclude that people with healthy lifestyles don’t need supplements.  You could be right.  I don’t particularly advocate them one way or another, and certainly not as a way to prevent disease.  When it comes to supplements, my preference it to lay out the pros and cons and let people make up their own minds (as I did in my recent book).

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