A recent study published in the Annals of Medicine found that taking dietary supplements had “no effect” on overall mortality. The study seems like a global indictment against all dietary supplements—and it certainly got a lot of traction in the mainstream press. (What a surprise…)
But there was a one fatal flaw in the study’s design…which completely nullifies the researchers’ conclusions.
So, let’s jump right in…
75 percent of findings are a wash
The new analysis looked at more than 30,000 adults, ages 20 and older at the study’s outset, who were a part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Subjects were selected because they had answered survey questions at least once before about dietary supplement use.
Almost 15,000 subjects (nearly half) reported taking regular dietary supplements over the past 30 days. But among these supplement-users, 75 percent of them took useless multi-vitamins, which I’ve warned you against many times.
For one, multis don’t include high enough doses of important vitamins like D and C, which other studies show can reduce chronic disease risk. In fact, it’s impossible to pack all of the necessary vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients you need into one easy capsule!
Plus, multis often include harmful vitamins and minerals—such as calcium and iron—which you should only ever get from foods, not supplements. The science actually shows that you increase your risk of heart disease and cancer, respectively, when you take these minerals in supplement forms. (Therefore, it’s not all that surprising that 945 of the deaths in this study came from heart disease, and 805 came from cancer.)
So, in my view, three-quarters of the findings about supplement-users in this huge, expensive research study are a complete “wash”…as they came from participants who took multi-vitamins.
Fortunately, the researchers still managed to come away with a few useful findings about some specific nutrients…
Researchers manipulate data to achieve desired results
The researchers looked specifically at 25 different vitamins, minerals, and other micro-nutrients. But remember, take these findings with a grain of salt. Because we already know that 75 percent of the supplement-users got these nutrients from useless (and sometimes harmful) multi-vitamins…and not from properly formulated individual vitamins, with the correct doses or forms.
Researchers looked at vitamin D—the all-important sunshine vitamin I constantly praise. But in my view, they seemed to treat this vitamin as an afterthought…
Overall, researchers observed no association between vitamin D intake and mortality. But a subset analysis—which I always warn against—showed that taking more than 400 IU daily “might” be associated with some increased risk in mortality.
As you know, I always warn against putting a lot of value in the findings from these kinds of subset analyses. Because I find that researchers perform them to drill down, statistically, until they achieve the results they want.
In addition, this purported higher mortality risk was only seen in people with blood levels of vitamin D at 50 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) or greater. But it’s rare to find anyone with such high levels, even when taking high doses of vitamin D, as I reported last week. Indeed, I suspect there were very few people in this category in the entire study.
Specific nutrients either increase or reduce disease risk
Next, let’s look at the study’s findings on calcium…
It turns out, excess calcium intake (of 1,000 mg/day or more) was associated with a 62 percent increased risk of dying from cancer, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Calcium supplementation is always a problem. And, again, you should only get calcium from diet alone.
On the other hand, people in this study who supplemented with the powerhouse carotenoid lycopene gained some real benefits…
In fact, those who took a lycopene supplement reduced their overall mortality risk by a significant 18 percent. Plus, they reduced their cancer death rate by a whopping 54 percent.
Of course, I talk a lot about the benefits of lycopene. Especially when it comes to prostate health. And other research shows that blood and tissue levels of lycopene are significantly higher among men who were diagnosed with less-aggressive forms of prostate neoplasia compared to men diagnosed with aggressive, fatal prostate cancer. Which means lycopene helps protect against the intrusive, deadly type of prostate cancer that you really need to worry about.
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All in all, we have a huge, expensive research study with dozens of different variables that created a grand correlation matrix. But it reads more like a “fishing expedition” to me.
Yes, we can safely conclude that taking multi-vitamins offers no benefits.
But you already knew that.
Really, we need to stop wasting time and money studying multis. Instead, I’d like to see more clinical, placebo-controlled clinical trials on single nutrients—such asvitamins B, C, and D, and lycopene.
In the meantime, continue to supplement daily with these nutrients. For my specific dosage recommendations, you can search my archives by typing the nutrient name into the “search” box in the top-right corner of my website.
“Association among dietary supplement use, nutrient intake, and mortality among U.S. adults: A Cohort Study.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 2019. 170(9):604-613. doi.org/10.7326/M18-2478