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May 2000 Issue
Dietary Supplements: Good or Bad?
by Michael Fick
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We know several dietary supplements ­­-- vitamins, minerals, herbs, and frog-fur and chicken-lip potions -- have been proven to work safely for most people, but are lacking even in good diets. This month, I was going to research, select and discuss the ones we should generally take to promote overall physical and mental health. Such proven supplements as Vitamin E, garlic, ginkgo biloba and a few others are very popular because they've been declared beneficial and harmless. Other supplements proven to help remedy specific problems, such as St. John's wort for mild depression and echinacea for colds and infection, were on the agenda. It should have been easy to find half a dozen proven, safe, effective supplements, because medical science is also on this track, performing increasingly large, lengthy, controlled, scientific, peer-reviewed, credible, clinical tests on the most promising supplements.

Not so. Their results are not only disappointing; they're alarming in some cases. Each new detailed research study shoots down yet another favorite supplement's effectiveness and/or safety. For example, we've all been taking Vitamin E and garlic for years, right? After all, they've been proven efficacious and harmless, right? And solid tests proved St. John's wort safely mitigates moderate depression, right?

Prove it. Science cannot. We had a great deal of faith in Vitamin E and garlic, for example, secure in the proof that they do wonders for our cardiovascular system, cholesterol levels, and the price of gasoline. But recent large, sound tests concluded that Vitamin E and garlic are useless, and now strongly hint that St. John's Wort interferes with several widespread, effective, vital prescription medicines. Is cheering ourselves up really worth negating our AIDS, high blood pressure, or birth control medicines?

We saw through the oatmeal farce soon enough. That was the press's fault, because they didn't distinguish between "Oatmeal contains one type of dietary fiber which, in adequate quantities, may help improve blood cholesterol levels in some people" and "A flake of oatmeal on your slice of bread (and thus in the ingredient list) will save your life". It took the scientists a year or two to correct that media overreaction.

Then when Vitamin A supplements were shown to raise, not lower, lung cancer deaths among smokers, Vitamin A joined the growing list of nutrients such as Vitamin C that we should get from food, not pills.

We finally figured out that margarine is generally more harmful than butter because of margarine’s trans-fatty acids. (Fancy that; a man-made, factory-adulterated substance is less healthy than a natural one!) We've known for years that rice cakes are nothing but sugar by the time they reach our stomachs. Melatonin does not help jet lag, and can worsen apnea, which promotes heart attacks. And triptophan made some of us sleep too well, and ... well ... sort of permanently, due to contamination. (There's minimal control of the content, efficacy, and potency of supplements.) Even good, honest grapefruit juice has killed many people because it over-concentrates otherwise beneficial prescription drugs in our bodies.

Silly me -- for thinking picking several good supplements would be easy. I give up. Santa Claus is just a concept, Billy Clinton is not Billy Graham, Pamela Lee Anderson of Baywatch was figuratively enhanced ... and Vitamin E and garlic are useless.

In all fairness, the Vitamin E research will continue, just in case it takes a decade, rather than the test’s present five years, to do us any good. So I'll finish off my bottle of Vitamin E capsules because it does no harm, is paid for, and may be proven some day to help us appreciate the taste of tofu.

Which, of course, is now under fire.

At this rate, someone's going to prove that Dr. Atkins' high protein/high fat/low carbohydrate diet is actually healthy in the long term.

I don't think so. Hundreds to thousands of controlled tests, experts, and autopsies dispute that. It takes a couple of decades to do its harm, but one of the surest tenets of medical science and demographics is that this high ratio of meat to carbohydrates is harmful even though is does lower weight.

The heck with it. Despite my high athletic demands, increasing age (56), balding and graying head, weakening vision, tendinitis, arthritic elbow, sun-damaged skin, and multiple nighttime trips to the bathroom, I'm sticking to just one supplement. We can, and probably should, continue supplementing our high carbo, high fiber, low fat, moderate protein, high fluids regimen with just one thing out of a bottle.

That one supplement still recommended or at least approved by the vast majority of experts is the common, cheap, ubiquitous, standard-strength multi-vitamin, multi-mineral pill. For the average person, even for a healthy person on a good diet, it's probably good insurance against a gap in our nutrition. But remember -- paying more than $15 for a year's supply is as wasteful as buying premium gas for a car that does not specify it; it buys us nothing extra. A Walmart or Costco vitamin pill and a little extra calcium (Tums), and we’re set for the day. And probably for life.

Am I overreacting? I doubt it, because even experts who spend their lives researching this stuff are surprised every few months, sometimes significantly, by new findings. They, and certainly we, can't say which supplements really improve a decent diet. But the trend is that many supplements are falling out of favor -- some even doing harm -- and I haven't the time, inclination, or expertise to pick the real winners, if any.

I didn't start out so cynical. I never will believe, for example, that table sugar can cause the two-page list of awful diseases ... almost including the risk of asteroid collisions ... that bona fide cynics claim sugar causes. (I have become a media cynic since witnessing first-hand some of their exaggerations intended to sell their "news". Look what media hype did to Dow-Corning by falsely proclaiming that silicone breast implants cause severe health problems and that all types of phen-fen, an effective weight-loss supplement with at least one safe form, are harmful.)

My primary dietary faith still resides in FOOD (including water), and I stuff it down to my heart's and stomach's content all day long to keep up my energy, satisfy my appetite, please my palate, keep my sweet tooth quiet, and transport all that nutrition to the right places. That, and plenty of exercise, seems to be all we need for a long, vigorous life. Unless and until, of course, our genes, stupid pet tricks like tobacco, vehicle crashes, and/or HMOs override our good diet and exercise.

On a brighter note for those with osteoarthritic knees, the much-hyped chondroitin sulfate/glucosamine supplements such as Pain-Free have been proven by tests, surgeons, veterinarians, and large peer-reviewed clinical tests to actually help, according to JAMA. Of course, JAMA also just reported that most brands of this supplement short-change us on their potency. And, by the way, it may promote adult-onset diabetes. Stay tuned.

I give up. I'm going to MacDonald's for the first time since the '80s and get a triple-decker, double-cheese, quadruple-bacon Big Mac ... Supersized.

NOT.



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