Friday, June 3, 2016

Are Vitamin Supplements Bad For You?

Let me begin by answering my title question bluntly: yes. The overwhelming scientific preponderance concurs that consuming high-dose vitamin supplements has negative long-term health effects for most people. If, like me, you find perusing scientific literature sleep-inducing, the findings have been condensed by everyone from The Atlantic to The Daily Mail to comedian Adam Conover (see above). Only the vitamin industry’s well-funded trade association disagrees anymore.

That said, I only recently discontinued my daily vitamin regimen. Despite having read the relevant reports; despite understanding the health risks associated with throwing my natural bodily harmonies out of balance; despite the fact that they’re so damn expensive, I continued taking daily multivitamins for years. If even an educated individual like me, someone who takes pride in staying abreast of facts, continues doing something harmful, we should ask: why?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe I’m representative of humanity in general, even considering the well-documented tendency all people have to consider themselves normative. Rather, I only wonder, when the preponderance of evidence holds so heavily with one position, and the known history of the debate is, at best, weird, why anybody who reads would continue consuming something known to cause harm. I suggest the alternative simply feels worse.

In my case, having been pressured by people I considered trustworthy to consider a daily multivitamin regimen, I purchased an inexpensive supplement, gave it a try—and immediately felt better. Not in some abstract psychological sense, either. (Warning: grossness follows.) The second day of the regimen, I passed a massive bowel movement. Also the third day, fourth day, fifth day… massive, soul-shakingly cleansing bowel movements, every day for over two weeks.

Whatever revolting toxins my body had been stockpiling, the vitamin apparently helped purge. The improvement was immediate. I had energy to begin a moderate exercise program, spent more time engaged in creative activities and less watching television, and returned better productive outputs at work. With that waste gone, I had more energy, better moods, and greater mental acuity. Simply put,  took vitamins and felt well.

Reasonably speaking, I know that consequence accrued from the supplement’s probiotic content. Having eaten a diet rich in starches, sugar, and fat, and light on fiber, green vegetables, and roughage, my intestinal fauna was unbalanced and weak. The probiotics, which I probably needed in small doses for short times, pushed long-held waste from my body. From there, I should’ve adjusted my diet, embraced healthier living, and moved on.

But we’re all human, subject to the same anchoring biases and post hoc reasoning as anybody. I took multivitamins and felt well; therefore, I reasoned, the multivitamins caused my discernible improvement. Intellectually speaking, I know they didn’t. Having restored my health by simple, brief interventions, I had an opportunity to adjust my lifestyle for improved health. Instead, I latched onto the one visible change that preceded my palpable bodily improvement.

In today’s fast-paced world, most Americans eat badly. Nine out of every ten Americans don’t get their complete nutritional needs from food alone, a popular advertising campaign warns, before urging us to purchase supplements. They never question the common American diet of restaurants and processed foods, overloaded in red meat, sugar, and heavy starch. If Americans can’t get their nutrition from food, maybe the problem isn’t us, it’s our food.

Admittedly, we face complex restrictions. Our work lives are increasingly performed indoors, seated, without needed exercise, sun, and human companionship. Sweet, fatty foods fill the resulting psychological hole… deeply, but briefly. Busy two- and three-income families have little time for home cooking. And the US Recommended Daily Allowance (USRDA), little changed in two generations, measures nutrients enough to prevent starvation, not to thrive abundantly.

Nevertheless, multivitamins, like drugs, alcohol, and television, provide the promise that we’ll feel better, healthier, restored. People embrace fad diets, like gluten-free or macrobiotic, without considering their individual health needs, because they hope to feel better. Some do: many people going gluten-free experience rapid weight loss. This happens mainly because they stop eating processed foods, but like with my multivitamins, they embrace what immediately precedes their improvement.

Maybe, faced with massive dietary shortfalls and unsupportable lifestyles, Americans should consider the forces making them feel bleak. Reaching for superficial solutions feels good, but does nothing. And multiple magazine articles scolding vitamin buyers has produced little effect. The problems underlying lopsided lifestyles, like basic poverty and little autonomy, loom so large, they’ve become invisible. If vitamin buyers hope to feel good, let’s investigate why they feel bad anyway.


  1. A few comments: By and large, I agree with what you wrote, but always when writing about a subject like this, it is wise to put in a warning to always discuss changes in your health regiment with your doctor.

    With that said, there are some of us who absolutely need the supplements to function, but that would be primarily those of us with severe absorption issues from major disease, and we are not, obviously representative of the majority of individuals.

    Also, remember that the gluten free diet is only a fad for some, it is a matter of life and death for others.

  2. All correct and valid points. Sadly, sometimes, in a 750-word essay, you have to eschew some caveats and pitch to the middle.