T Nation

Supplement Risks


This came out in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about how (for white women anyway), vitamins seem to actually kill us faster.

"Multivitamins and many other dietary supplements provide little benefit for most people and may be harmful, according to researchers behind a large new study.

The researchers tracked nearly 39,000 women for an average of 19 years. They found a small increase in the risk of death among older women who took dietary supplements compared with those who didn't, according to the study, released Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

An exception was calcium supplements, which are widely recommended to protect against bone fractures. They were associated with a slightly decreased risk of premature death.

"Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements," unless there is a medical reason or deficiency of a particular nutrient, wrote the study authors, most of whom are affiliated with the University of Minnesota.

At least half of U.S. adults take vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, according to government estimates. Consumers spent about $11.8 billion on vitamins and minerals last year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, which tracks supplement sales.

Among the several vitamins and minerals studied, researchers said the strongest association for an increased risk of death came with iron, which is often prescribed for people who have anemia. Women in the study who took iron supplements were 3.9% more likely to die than those who didn't."

I don't know how much of this would apply to men, but there was this one about how Vitamin E seems to increase the risk of prostate cancer.


This has me wondering about the wisdom of taking vitamins. It seems that there's a lot of positive research behind fish oil, and I do think Vitamin B supplements made me feel better when I started them. Anybody else thinking about the risks?


Probably because the people who took the vitamin supplements were obese women looking for a magical cure to their fatness, and were going to die sooner anyways.



This was a study of 39,000 women over 19 years and they "...controlled for age, diet, weight , smoking status, and underlying health conditions to isolate the impact of vitamins and minerals...So the results weren't skewed by the fact that the women who took supplements were more likely to exercise, weight less and have a lower prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure than women who didn't take the supplements." All of the women in the study were white women.

We know most people aren't getting their 7-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, so you'd think that people taking supplements would live longer. Apparently it's not as intuitive as it sounds.


well this isn't really news, studies have been coming out for awhile showing this, I guess the media finally caught up with all of it. I found out for example about vitamin E last semester in a class that went over this, and how it might lead to an increase in prostate cancer I think it was?

Selenium, for example, has been shown to increase the risk for cancer. Same with vitamin A.

Anyways, the long list that the article mentions is a bit disheartening... but I'll still take my magnesium and zinc.


No, not at all. There is some truth to it and the studies show it.


heard about the Vit. E and prostate cancer on the radio the other day.

However, these I assume are all correlations and no causations.

So many other factors are going to come into play, I want to know why they are seeing these trends.

for example, you can see a trend that more sugar someone eats, the higher than chance of being obese or having diabetes or tooth decay. You can very easily from a biological reason figure out what is going on.


^ True, and it does make one wonder, right?

I've always thought of vitamins as sort of insurance. It's best to get your nutrients from food sources, but in the event that I'm deficient, then the vitamins might help remedy that.

Now I look at the data and think taking a multivitamin might actually be harming me. It's like having someone say, "Take this pill and your likelihood of being dead will go up nearly 4% over the next 20 years." That doesn't make me want to go buy more vitamins.

I think we are so ingrained to think that vitamins are a good idea, many people would keep taking them even though the evidence might be contraindicative. It goes against our "conventional wisdom".

Incidentally, this is coming at a time when I've been thinking about taking my nutrition to "the next level" so to speak. I already eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, and lean protein but I've been really considering getting completely away from my Diet Dr. Pepper habit, and kicking the artificial sweeteners. Now I'm thinking about kicking most of my vitamins too.


There are no "health pills"...and I know MANY people who take vitamins as if taking that pill is somehow going to combat the donuts, the six cans of coke (to stay awake), the bad diet and the lack of exercise (save for walking to the mailbox).

I don't even take a multi-vitamin when gaining. I do tend to focus more on it when dieting because I don't know where my diet may be coming up short in that department.

What I mean is, if you were taking pills for "insurance", then you were on the wrong path to start with.

Your entire life style is what gives you that.

I also do not think this is direct consequence of vitamins by themselves, but seeing as science changes so drastically over time, I fault anyone for coming up with hard and fast rules in science short of true laws of nature.

We aren't that smart yet to think we have everything figured out.

We are still at a stage where just 10 years ago, eggs were KNOWN to kill you.


I don't take any multivitamin, however, I do believe in taking vitamin D, fish oil and either Greens or Superfood to cover my nutritional bases.


Yes. When you are gaining, you assume that you are taking in enough nutrition so you are unlikely to be deficient. When you are on a cut, you think more about the possibility that vitamins might be helpful.

When I've analyzed my nutrition on fitday, I always come up with really high levels of Vitamins A and C for example, but am always deficient in Magnesium. That's what I meant by taking vitamins as "insurance" to cover possible areas of chronic deficiency. Instead, I should probably be thinking more about increasing natural food sources for that mineral, particularly since my body may not even absorb it well from the pill, and I might also be getting other things that are actually detrimental.

Maybe the multivitamin approach is sort of like trying to hit a little bird with a shotgun. A pellet might hit, but I'm also getting a lot of shot that I don't want or need.

Thanks X. Your point about lifestyle is absolutely true. I still run into people who think eggs are bad for you. Too bad, considering it's such a cheap source of protein.


Risk of death being what? Im confused by the conclusion.


wasn't this study funded by a big pharmaceutical companies...



I think it usually means all-cause mortality rates. Something like that.


PB Andy - I think that's right. I don't see where it specified cause of death, just that the women who took the supplements were 3.9 times as likely to be DEAD by then end of the study. I haven't read the actual study, just the WSJ article I linked.

Dolce - The study was primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. Although I can see why the supplement companies wouldn't like the outcome. Incidentally, it was a big study of women's health, not just looking at supplements in particular.


Thats what concerns me. So whats the mortality rates between people who wear shoes or flip flops? So taking supplements causes car accidents?

Ultimately I believe there are some "companies" who dont know what they are doing when making supplements. Also the person taking the supplement can have an adverse reaction to it for X reason. All sorts of people die from aspirin but no one has ever died from Vitamin C. I dont know what the article defines as a "dietary supplement" or "multivitamin." I think looking into the company that makes the supplement is a good bet. Mcdonalds makes "food" but go to their "farms" and you may change your mind.
Sorry for all the bunny ears.


Some criticisms of the study from the Life Extension Foundation:



Sorry to nit-pick here but it wasn't 3.9 times more likely to be dead, it is 3.9% = 1.039 times. (Maths degree I can't help it)

Also, when I saw this on the UK news this piece jumped out at me:

They are quick to stress that their study relied on the 38,000 US women who took part in it recalling what vitamins and minerals they had taken over the previous two decades.

How many people will accurately be able to recall their supplement dosing from 20 years ago?


Forgot the link:

Read this as well, interesting study on psychological reactions to taking supplements. Especially the tendency to opt for 'unhealthier' choices when subjects believed they had taken vitamins.



That was really interesting. Thanks for posting the link. And it does have me thinking more about the heavy metal exposure (iron and copper to be specific).

I will say that some of the conclusions there at the end about how the study inducing fear so people stop taking vitamins is good news for the pharmaceutical interests goes a little bit too Oliver Stone/ conspiracy theory for me. It's like calling the kettle black as well, since the supplement industry also has a vested interest in keeping people buying vitamins.