Reason and Vitamin Supplements: I Fear the Twain Shall Never Meet


The Ballad of East and West came to mind when I read the latest studies and media reports about common but dubious medical interventions and the even more common and more dubious $18 billion vitamin supplement industry. Both, it seems, waste mega-gobs of consumer money. Of course you’ve known about unnecessary surgeries and overprescribed tests and drugs. Nothing new there, save that it might be more of a problem that you thought. Now however, there’s further evidence that vitamin supplements are completely, 100 percent unnecessary. OMG – what are people thinking?

Medical Overuse/Misuse and Trusting But Not Verifying 

Let’s start with the latest medical industry news. It seems that many surgical procedures and medical tests do more harm than good. This kind of story is sadly familiar. Hardly a day goes by without media reports of abrupt changes in the thinking of medical and other health experts. In one way, this is good, as it demonstrates somebody is paying attention and checking things out. After all, going against the tide is not easy to do. However, such discoveries also raise alarms that consumers might be overly complacent about customary and normal procedures. Many consumers, as we have seen time and again, are neither as wise nor as prudent as would be in their interests to be. A REAL wellness perspective will not guarantee always doing the right thing in the face of medical and other expert advice. However, skepticism and critical thinking, rather than faith in experts and authority figures with titles, licenses and impressive associations, are truly invaluable for those who treasure quality living.

All the concerns about medicine and the pill industry have one thing in common: an over-reliance on faith. This mental error has always has been one of the great hazards to human prosperity and well being. The remedy, of course, is reason, but reason has many enemies. The paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey famously observed, the faith brigade, whether they’re evangelical Christians, whether they’re conservative Catholics, whether they’re Islamic fundamentalists, are quite worried about this concept (reason, critical thinking and science in general, evolution in particular) and are trying desperately to persuade ongoing future generations to have nothing to do with it. And in the process, [they] are putting people off science, putting people off the scientific method, putting people off the possibility of accepting facts. That’s the key – accept facts and nothing but facts, knowing that there is work to be done to separate the pearls of fact from the barnacles of faith.

Across the country, thousands of Americans are going under the knife for unnecessary surgeries. A report by USA Today summarized an extensive review of government records and medical databases showing that unnecessary surgeries account for 10 to 20 percent of all operations in some specialties. (See Tara Culp-Ressler, Doctors Perform Thousands Of Unnecessary Surgeries And Reap The Profits, Think Progress, June 20, 2013.)  

How is that possible?” you might ask. A review of legal settlements since 2005 suggests that thousands of people suffered serious permanent injury or death at the hands of over 1000 doctors in malpractice cases. Surgical procedures were classed as unnecessary most often in terms of pacemaker implants, knee replacements, hysterectomies and cesarean sections. This is possible in part because the incentives in play are not organized to benefit of patients. Think of how things work: Doctors get paid to do procedures and Medicare and insurance companies pay for these procedures. Can doctors be expected to act as consumer ombudspersons under such a system? How crazy is the reimbursement structure that imperils consumers in this manner? Consider this: Hospitals actually profit more off of their botched surgeries than they do from surgeries that go smoothly. The same is true for unnecessary procedures. Doctors make more money for each surgery they do, even if it’s a procedure that isn’t needed or a follow-up procedure to correct an earlier mistake. (Source: Reference above.)

So, what role might reason play for consumers? Obviously, skepticism is the best antidote against the constant danger of tempting but unnecessary or inappropriate interventions based on faith in a medical clergy. Skepticism involves Googling and otherwise searching for objective information on the issues/problems involved in your case, second and third opinions, chats with others having undergone similar crises and, in a nice way, questioning everything. The studies cited showed that a second opinion alone resulted in a 20 percent drop in certain surgeries among those cases most often classed as unnecessary.

Vitamin Supplements Image

Yet another study, reported widely in the media, reflects insufficient judicious reasoning by Americans, who spent no less than $23.4 billion on vitamin supplements last year. This is the same dynamic seen in the case of medical procedures. While the sale of vitamin pills is clearly in the interests of companies that sell the stuff, the buying and consumption of these products is not. A major study shows that supplements have no health benefits – and even present some risks. (See Jeanne Whalen, Health Multivitamins Found to Have Little Benefit – No Effect Seen in Preventing Cognitive Decline, Heart Disease, Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2013.)  

The WSJ article summarized the data presented in the Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM) based upon 26 vitamin studies. All the studies indicated that vitamin products have few to no health benefits for generally well-nourished, Western populations. Therefore, if you live in the West and have enough money to buy food, you won’t benefit by supplementing with vitamin pills or other potions. The AIM Journal editor put it this way: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified and they should be avoided. 

Do you have any idea what percentage of Americans use vitamin supplements? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the answer is about 40 percent. Pitiful.

Naturally, the vitamin pill industry is seriously vexed by these reports, to the point where one wonders if they might go all Ayatollah Khomeini on the AIM with a fatwa or something. The head of one industry group was quoted in the WSJ story as follows: It’s no secret that many consumers in this country don’t get the recommended nutrients from their diet alone, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are an affordable alternative. Affordable alternative to what – food? To reason? To common sense?

A Pfizer Company spokesperson (maker of Centrum Silver vitamin pills) also was cited in defense of the industry, noting that supplements are primarily intended to help people fill dietary gaps when they aren’t fulfilling their nutritional needs through food alone, and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Why not fulfill nutritional needs by eating food? And who really thinks a vitamin pill is a way to diagnose a disease? Or prevent, treat or cure a disease? Just maybe consumers somehow get these crazy ideas from the industry itself, which spends billions saturating the airways with ads that come very close to implying that their pills will not only treat, cure or prevent disease but, more than anything else, promote health.

There is only one other bogus fix that has been overhyped more than vitamin supplements. That, of course, is prayer.

But that’s a topic for another day.

Be well, look on the bright side and have a good meal – or two or three daily, whenever possible. Doing so, along with other elements of a REAL wellness lifestyle, will do more for your health than just about anything else and will cost you nothing – except, of course, satisfying hard work and joyful perseverance. Every day.

4 thoughts on “Reason and Vitamin Supplements: I Fear the Twain Shall Never Meet

  1. [TRIGGER WARNING: fat-shaming, misogynist doucheweaselry. -Ed.]



    And tghe Mandy Rice Davies Award for this week goes to …

    … the AIM Journal which states, ‘Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified and they should be avoided.’

    Well they would say that wouldn’t that.

    The number of people in the Western world starving on full stomachs must be legion. The most common complaint is Shithouse’s Syndrome – as in ‘I feel shithouse’. They go to their doctor and get a pill to mask the symptom rather than a recipe that includes food that will give them all the vitamins, minerals and nutriceuticals they need for high level metabolic, musculo-skeletal and psychological function.

    To get sound nutritional advice, most people would be better off going to a vet. Their doctor doesn’t have a clue about nutrition. Vets know what supplements animals need just by looking at them. Where the soil is deficient in essential minerals the animals need a bullet and grinder, no question.

    OK, so we don’t get the extreme manifestations of scurvey, rickets … but I’d suggest to you a lot of people have bodies working at below par due to a lack of essential nutrients.

    Of course they can get every thing they need from food – maybe. But if it’s grown on infertile and depleted soils, picked too early, then battered and cooked to the point where all the essential nutrients are removed, you may as well eat the plastic bag it came in – or dose yourself up on Gliclazide, Avapro, Lipitor, Pandadol, Zoloft, Prednisone, Celebrex, Prilosec and a tube of Anusol!

    I think that by relying on the medical journals for your evidence you run the risk of having that evidence being labelled as ‘selective’. I’d add James Cook’s diaries to my reading list, along with James Mitchener’s book, ‘Alaska’, and Sławomir Rawicz’s book, ‘The long Walk’. A book about the Burma Railway wouldn’t go astray in this debate either, nor would Douglass Mawson’s book, ‘Home of the Blizzard’.

    The real world is full of stories of nutritional deficiency, stories that you won’t find coming from the articles written by the inmates of the sheltered workshops for the academically gifted.

    Think about it. You get cramps, you need more potassium. Eat more bananas. How many people know that?

    Osteoporosis! Maybe you need more calcium. Diabetes, more niacin or chromium (or whatever).

    Who’s this Jeanne Whalen character that I should take her advice? The pharmaceutical companies feed journalists like farmers feed chickens.

    I wouldn’t trust anyone from Pfizer to give me straight advice:

    ‘A Pfizer Company spokesperson (maker of Centrum Silver vitamin pills) also was cited in defense of the industry, noting that supplements are primarily intended to help people fill dietary gaps when they aren’t fulfilling their nutritional needs through food alone …’

    To that point I agree.

    But then the spokesperson goes on to say ‘… and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.’

    This is just plain baloney. Lack of minerals and vitamins is a major cause of poor health around the world. I know the bloke who ran the program to iodise salt in iodine deficient countries. I think the Limeys would agree.

    Don, sorry to disagree with you but I’d be laying into the faith-based, junk medical industry – the industry that knows sweet bugger all about the health benefits of diet and exercise – before I attacked vitamin supplementation.

    The only citation I can give you is excitation.

    A final word. Certainly a second opinion is necessary, and a third and fourth.


    A lady went to her doctor because she was feeling shithouse. He asked her to strip down and get onto the couch while he made an examination.

    After he’d finished he asked her to get down and get changed while he wrote down a few notes.

    After waiting for a while the woman said, ‘Well doctor, what’s wrong with me?’

    He replied, ‘Well madam, the reason you’re feeling shithouse is because you’re fat’.

    The women was mortified and said, ‘How dare you, I want a second opinion!’

    The doctor replied, ‘And you’re ugly’.


    John Miller

    • Your “joke” has no place at this blog.

      First: people can be fat for all sorts of reasons. Second, not all fat people are unhealthy—although they do indeed suffer ill health and death as a direct result of anti-fat prejudice from the medical profession (and society generally) all the fucking time.

      Third: 99% of the time, the “you’re fat and ugly LOL” trope is, curiously enough, only directed at women. Why is that? It is because it is perfectly emblematic of a deeply misogynist culture that values women only as sexual objects who exist for the enjoyment and use of men—not as equally valuable whole human beings in their own right.

      Unlike your bone-headed ignorance, seething misogyny and privileged doucheweaselry, women, including fat women and those who do not live up to your personal standards of fuckability, deserve respect, not mockery and contempt.

      Pull that shit again here and you’re banned.

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