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Nutritional supplements. (Courtesy of Flickr user Clean Wal-Mart)

Vitamins: Friend or Foe?

The truth to vitamin supplements

smithsonian.com

I don't know about you, but I grew up in a vitamin-happy household. My mom used to lovingly arrange a tiny army of pills next to our orange juice glasses on school mornings: the chalky white circles were vitamin C; the weird little bubbles contained vitamins E, A and D; and the uncomfortably large, speckled tablets were multivitamins. And to give my mom credit, I've always had very good health. But is it just a coincidence?

Tara Parker-Pope at the New York Times health blog sums up several recent medical studies that suggest vitamin supplements offer no benefits in terms of warding off conditions like heart disease or cancer. Worse, she notes, some studies suggest that supplements could actually harm people's health in certain cases! For example, a recent Johns Hopkins study concludes that vitamin E supplements actually increased people's risk of dying, albeit only slightly. A 2002 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed a link between vitamin A supplements and osteoporotic hip fractures in women. And when other factors come into play, such as smoking, lung cancer or asbestos exposure, supplements look even sketchier.

Well, at least vitamin C is still our friend...right? Maybe, maybe not. Studies show that routinely taking vitamin C supplements won't decrease your chance of catching a cold, although a temporary C boost is beneficial before you run a marathon or explore the Arctic. And it does seem that taking a large dose (8 grams) at the onset of cold symptoms could speed recovery.

The bottom line? It's not rocket science: Eat your fruits and vegetables. Better to get your vitamins through a healthy diet than through willy-nilly pill-popping. (No offense, Mom!)

And on a related note, the Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran an interesting piece about a nutritionist who was getting paid by the orange juice industry at the same time that she was feeding sound-bites to journalists about the benefits of drinking OJ to stay healthy. (Sure, she's right that orange juice is a good source of vitamin C, but it's also higher in sugar and calories than other dietary sources of C, like broccoli or green peppers.) This sort of conflict of interest pops up occasionally in other fields as well, and may make consumers wonder just whom they can trust.

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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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