A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post for TreeHugger about a new medical study in which a group of doctors stated that multivitamins and dietary supplements are a waste of money. There were many interesting and passionate responses to my post, including requests for a follow-up post that offers another perspective. The original post was written more as a news report than an opinion piece, and since I tend toward a more holistic, alternative approach in maintaining health, I am quite happy to consider another side of the issue.
Many people feel that the medical community’s desire to crush the multivitamin and dietary supplement market is a direct attack on alternative medicine. For a long time, alternative medicine practitioners such as chiropractors, midwives, acupuncturists, osteopaths, homeopaths, and naturopaths, have fought for recognition and access rights to various medical facilities. A few, such as midwives, are given limited hospital rights, at least where I live in Canada, but some of these practitioners are still forbidden from practicing legally in certain American states. Perhaps the attack on multivitamins could be called a control issue, because doctors won't get paid if their patients are healthy and taking care of themselves by other means; or it could be attributed to competition for sales, because supplement suppliers want to sell their products as much as pharmaceutical companies do.
Dr. David Edelberg of Whole Health Chicago, a center for integrative medicine which also sells its own natural supplements, recently wrote a very informative newsletter on this topic. He believes that people are actively discouraged by mainstream medicine to care for themselves:
“Enter ‘vitamins are useless’ articles. The more you’re presented with official-sounding data that erodes your confidence in self-care, the more you’ll relinquish yourself to the seriously dysfunctional U.S. health care system. And that means the more you’ll rely on surgery, prescription drugs, and health insurance.”
In another newsletter, Dr. Edelberg goes on to explain the intimate relationship between ‘Big Pharma’ and doctors. The latter is expected to accumulate annual “Continuing Medical Education (CME)” credits by reading journal articles, writing quizzes, and attending conferences – and most of the CME courses are funded in a roundabout way by Big Pharma. “What this generally means is that an innocent-sounding useful course called ‘Advances in Diabetes Management’ may mysteriously have as the correct quiz answers (the answers that will earn you CME credit) those that promote pharmaceuticals.”
In his book Bad Pharma, Ben Goldacre points out that some doctors get paid thousands of dollars in speaking and consulting fees by pharmaceutical companies, another possible conflict of interest. If you live in the U.S., you can see if you doctor has received money from a drug company by looking them up in the Dollars for Doc database build by Propublica.
So perhaps doctors aren’t to be entirely trusted when it comes to opinions about dietary supplements, since it may not be in their best interest to promote their use. Researchers are known to cherry-pick the data that supports the argument they wish to make. The multivitamin study never mentioned a huge study last year reporting a lower incidence of cancer among men taking supplements. Nor does it address the fact that regular supplement users often report overall ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ health, although that could be due to users having generally healthier lifestyles than non-users, with better nutrition and more exercise. Nevertheless, it's worth keeping in mind that the supplement industry is not nearly as regulated as the pharmaceutical industry, so it's easier for supplement companies to invent claims about their products without doing studies to back them up.
It’s still a good idea to approach multivitamins with caution. They are not a substitute for good nutrition, and many of the cheaper varieties contain worrisome synthetic nutrients. Consult alternative health care practitioners for additional opinions to learn which supplements can be truly beneficial.