Bad information- where do you turn?

Posted by on 23 December, 2010

Lots of my patients take something from the supplement aisle of their pharmacy or health food shop. That’s not surprising as Australia’s Biggest Health Check confirmed that 82% of Aussie women take some sort of supplement- often a multivitamin.

I’m always torn when I hear this because I’m not a big fan of health in a bottle…. Especially when the evidence for it is patchy or nonexistent or there are potential harms. FYI, I take fish oil if I don’t have fish for dinner and that’s it.

Taking multivitamins every day has been linked to breast cancer and prostate cancer. Beta carotene has been linked to lung cancer and vitamin E supplements are linked to strokes. We have no idea why but there are a couple of theories; one is that the body destroys unwanted cells intentionally and that too many antioxidants may interfere with the body’s self regulation of damaged cells. The other theory is that there is more to vitamins than we know and that artificial synthetic vitamins are not the same as the real deal packaged up as Mother Nature intended in a broccoli floret or a banana.

We have minimum recommended doses but are yet to establish a maximum dose. Meanwhile, these days basic (read: not healthy) foods such as white bread, fruit juices and kiddy-targeted breakfast cereals have vitamins and other nutrients added in. Popping a pill on top of everything else just makes no sense to me until we’ve established that they’re safe and that there are benefits. Fail on both scores- sorry but that’s the bottom line.

Yesterday on an unnamed but usually exceptionally high quality TV show, there was a segment by a ‘nutritionist’ on vitamin supplements. It made me a little nauseous to be honest. The very attractive and erudite ‘nutritionist’ made some outrageous statements.  She recommended vitamin C in mega doses (Oh yes she went there) and B vitamins for ‘adrenal fatigue’. Mega doses of vitamin C have not been found to be beneficial in any condition except possibly gout but have been linked to miscarriage, cataracts and kidney stones. And vitamin B supplements have no beneficial effects, ‘adrenal fatigue’ is a crock; although at least this bit of advice will harm only your wallet, not your body. She claimed most of us are deficient in these vitamins due to poor diets (not true) and that we should get blood tests just to be sure. If you pay tax and therefore fund Medicare, think long and hard whether you want your taxes to go towards pathology testing at hundreds of dollars a pop for zero yield.

She redeemed herself scientifically when she mentioned the need for folate supplements during pregnancy (“to prevent birth defects”- OK half a redemption. Folic acid supplements during the first trimester help prevent neural tube defects only. No other birth defects.)

The reason I mention this is that the viewer is left to navigate this quagmire of misinformation alone. What was glaring misinformation from someone who got a diploma out of the nearest cereal box to me could be exceptionally harmful advice to someone else. As if the net wasn’t a horrid enough source of misinformation.

My advice; take everything that you hear with a pinch of salt, even on reputable programs. Find a go-to person you trust or a high quality website and check, check, check!

To your health!!