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Can You Trust the NYT?

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After three patients and health tips readers sent me copies of a decidedly smug article in the New York Times blasting the public’s gullibility regarding vitamin supplements, I felt I had to say something.

The article reports that the public seemingly ignores numerous large “well-controlled clinical studies” that, when all is said and done, have proven regular vitamin use doesn’t prevent any disease whatsoever. All you need to do is eat a healthful, well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits and veggies, and you’ll be fully covered. The whole tone of the article seems to be “how can everyone be so stupid?”

Let me start by saying that any large scale study on vitamin use involving thousands of people is simply impossible to interpret scientifically. The study would be in the form of a questionnaire, with those who answer “yes” to the question “Do you take a vitamin supplement?” placed in one group, with those answering “no” in the other.

But right up front, everyone agrees that people who regularly purchase vitamin supplements are generally more involved with their health than those who do not. They consciously eat healthier diets, avoid smoking, exercise more often, are better educated, have higher incomes, and have health insurance. With the last factor, they can avail themselves of regular check-ups, including health counseling, colonoscopies, mammograms, and so forth. In other words, there are simply too many factors involved to make a broad generalization about vitamins.

Second, there are many different kinds of vitamin products. The typical One-A-Day or Centrum combination contains miniscule amounts of vitamins–just enough to keep you from getting a vitamin deficiency disease like scurvy or beriberi. All the published studies showing health benefits from supplements used doses well in excess of these minimum-wage products.

Third, every week there are numerous well-conducted studies being published worldwide showing the health benefits of nutritional supplements. This link will take you to an organization called Vitasearch, which culls the world’s medical literature and sends summaries of articles to physicians interested in the latest vitamin research. Just click on any of the weekly research updates and scroll down. In one week’s issue, you can read about studies showing that folic acid repairs the lining of arteries, thiamine improves heart performance in athletes, and glucosamine/chondroitin slows arthritis.

And finally, here’s a link to a really disturbing study. I myself had noticed in recent years that there’d been an increasing number of medical journal articles bashing nutritional supplements and alternative medicine. For this study, researchers reviewed numerous conventional medical journals and concluded that there was a direct correlation between the number of pages of pharmaceutical advertising and the number of articles opposing nutritional supplement use. Those journals with the fewest advertising pages had the most balanced articles. Those with the most advertising pages were consistently negative.

Painfully, this reflects the unwillingness of medical journal editors to bite the hand that feeds them. As a consequence of such selective editing, physicians are kept in the dark about the value of nutritional supplements as they thumb through page after page of pharmaceutical promotions.

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