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Study to investigate whether supplements reduce risk of cancer suggests risk is increased by 30%

Lancet 2004; 364: 1219-28 A review of 14 studies with over 170,000 people was done to investigate whether supplements affected gastrointestinal cancers. No protective effect was found. Supplements with beta carotene and vitamin A together increased cancer risk by 30%

"We could not find evidence that antioxidant supplements can prevent gastrointestinal cancers; on the contrary, they seem to increase overall mortality."

Lancet 2003; 361: 101-06 "In 1998, 11 poison control centres in the USA recorded details of 2332 telephone calls about 1466 ingestions of dietary supplements, in 784 of which patients had symptoms."... "A third of events were of greater than mild severity. We noted both new and previously reported associations that included myocardial infarction, liver failure, bleeding, seizures, and death."... "Dietary supplements are associated with adverse events that include all levels of severity, organ systems, and age groups."

"Research into hazards and risks of dietary supplements should be a priority."

Not long after Rhino Fitness posted an article on how ergogenic supplements deliver more hype than results, and another on the misgivings of "health food" stores that in fact sell primarily supplements and not food, out comes a report published in the Lancet that suggests the consumption of vitamin supplements that combine vitamin A and beta carotene may increase the incidence of cancer by a whopping 30%.

Ironically, these results were found in a study that was meant to investigate the efficacy of vitamin supplements ability to reduce risk of cancer, but in fact the opposite was found.

In 1996 the CARET study (Beta Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial) looked at smokers who took beta carotene and vitamin A supplements. The study found that out of 18000 people studied, 28% more lung cancers were diagnosed in those whose took the beta carotene and vitamin A pills.

Ending in 1995, The Physicians Health Study, a 12 year study, found no positive or negative effects after 12 years of beta carotene supplementation. Only 11% of the subjects were smokers.

It's important to note that those who consumed foods rich in beta carotene did not suffer any of the ill effects of those who consumed the supplement form. Smokers should not avoid foods with beta carotene, but according to research, should; 1) quit smoking, and 2) avoid beta carotene supplements if they continue smoking.

Beta carotene was investigated as a potential anti cancer agent because it contains anti oxidants that can prevent cell damage.

There are many studies that suggest the consumption of fruits and vegetables promotes health by providing the body with nutrients that reduce the risk cardiovascular disease and cancer. It seems supplement companies make the overly simplistic conclusion that therefore a pill with the same vitamins in it will also prevent disease. Apparently not.

One problem seems to be the bioavailability of the pharmacologically derived vitamins is lower in supplements than it is in food meaning we don't absorb vitamins from supplements as well as we do from foods. Also, as we don't yet fully understand how antioxidants go about their business and what specific ratio's of vitamins are needed to produce a positive effect, it seems dangerous to assume that a mega dose vitamin pill is going to be a panacea. The concentration of vitamins in supplements is between 10 and 100 times greater than found in foods. The "more is better" approach is not always better - how many times have we learned this?

We know that the dose of vitamins found in foods has the positive health-protecting effect we are after. We know that the physical consumption of lots of nutrient dense vegetables and fruits is the most effective way to deliver these vitamins to our body. Why is this so confusing? Eat the food!

Some suggest that people who eat healthily are also likely to have other healthy habits such as regular exercise and it is this combination that results in fewer incidences of cancer and other disease in the "healthy living" population. This seems quite reasonable.

Think about this: We discover that eating vegetables is healthy. Some nut-brain then decides that to get the health benefits of vegetables, instead of simply eating the vegetables, we need to chemically reproduce the vitamins found in vegetables, make it into a pill, and then eat the pill. Would it be so terribly difficult to put a carrot in the hand, move it to the mouth, chew, and swallow? Does it not make sense to by-pass the low quality facsimile and go for the real thing?

Vitamins and minerals don't come from pills, they come from plants. We get the vitamins by eating the plants or other things that eat the plants. Pills are a poor quality knockoff of the original.

We have gradually progressed to the state where most people will automatically think of pills first when they think of vitamins, instead of thinking of an orange or of eating healthy.

We may walk right past the produce department on the way to the pharmacy to get our vitamins.

EAT HEALTHY FOOD! I wish I could type more loudly because when I talk about diet and exercise I sometimes get that dumb feeling where you think you have to talk louder in order to have someone understand what you're saying. Of course it turns out they hear you just fine, they just don't agree with you. This study in the Lancet is another dose of "I told you so" in the argument for why healthy living doesn't require a pill or potion, just some common sense. I hope readers hear that.

If we're healthy and eat a balanced diet we'll get all the vitamins we need and can throw most of our supplements in the garbage or never buy them in the first place. Could there be a legitimate case for some vitamin and mineral supplementation? Yes.

I'll tell you I'm uncomfortable talking about legitimate needs for supplements because I don't want this in any way to fan the fires of support for pro-supplement groups. But that's my problem and I don't want to make it yours. The fact is there are some legitimate circumstances where vitamin and mineral supplements in the correct dosage are warranted.

It's well known that athletes, specifically runners, tend to have low iron levels. In fact this is even dubbed "runners anemia". This typically occurs in runners with poor dietary iron intake who run too much. Female athletes are at a greater risk of developing low iron levels. Interestingly the impact of running crushes red blood cells in capillaries on the bottom of the foot contributing to low iron levels (iron is bound to red blood cells).

For those who don't consume dairy products it can be challenging to get 1000 to 1500 mg of calcium per day, so a calcium supplement may be indicated in this scenario. Some people have an illness or condition that interferes with eating and/ or vitamin and mineral absorption and they may need supplements. Regardless, it's better not to self diagnose. If you are not certain of your vitamin and mineral intake talk to your doctor or dietitian.

If you eat a balanced diet, it is highly unlikely that any vitamin supplement will be needed, and in light of recent research, there is not likely any real benefit and a possible serious health risk with taking supplements. Since supplements are not absorbed well by the body, they really amount to nothing more than expensive urine, as you pee out the unabsorbed portions.

In addition to vitamin supplements not providing any advantage over vitamins in food, the supplement industry has a long storied history of deceit. Over and over again supplement companies make completely unsubstantiated claims regarding the effects of their products, and over and over again they are successfully sued, fined, and shut down for their nefarious antics. I don't want to create paranoia towards supplement companies, there are reputable ones, but the industry isn't exactly known for it's integrity.

Take a look at this laundry list from the US Federal Trade Commission, then consider this new research published in the Lancet. Next time you think of vitamins, think "fruits and vegetables", don't think "pill".

From the FTC web site:

May 1st 2000 Marketers of "Vitamin O" Settles FTC Charges of Making False Health Claims; Will Pay $375,000 for Consumer Redress "ads claimed that "Vitamin O" could treat or prevent serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and lung disease by enriching the bloodstream with supplemental oxygen."
- Turns out "Vitamin O" is nothing more than salt water!


Home Shopping network was charges with not being able to substantiate these claims:

  • Life Way Vitamin C and Zinc Spray sprayed in the mouth
    heals mouth lesions, cold sores, and cracking of lip corners
    and prevents common colds;
  • Life Way Vitamin B-12 Spray treats hangover symptoms and
    increases energy; and
  • Life Way Anti-Oxident Spray ensures proper function of
    the immune system, reduces risk of contracting infectious
    diseases, and prevents facial lines.

FTC Action Challenges "Doctor Recommended" Claim

March 6, 2002 Wonder Bread Marketers Settle FTC Charges
Claims That Bread with Added Calcium Could Help Brain Function and Memory Alleged to be Unsubstantiated

FTC advertising cases - Children's supplements (PDF)

FTC advertising cases 1984 - July 15 2003

Want vitamins from a reliable source? Visit your local grocery store. Vitamins come in multicolored packages that look suspiciously like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.



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2003-2004 Cris LaBossiere Rhino Fitness

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