Supplements And The Media

December 2011

1. something added to complete a thing supply a deficiency or reinforce or extend a whole.

I've been meaning to write a note about the sensationalized story that made the rounds recently about the dangers of supplements for women.  As if war revolution economic malaise debt crises and the like weren’t enough...the popular media decided to provide more of what we don’t need: fear. A few recent articles were based on a study that examined vitamin and mineral supplements in relation to total mortality in a group of postmenopausal women. The study’s conclusion is as follows: “In older women several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk; this association is strongest with supplemental iron. In contrast to the findings of many studies calcium is associated with decreased risk.”  

Some of the review articles generated by the media were more balanced than others and highlighted when supplements are useful and when they are not. Others provided some balance but the headlines (“Supplements Offer Risks Little Benefit Study Says”) seemed outright silly - and completely misleading.  An analogous headline might be “Foods Offer Risks Little Benefits Study Says” with the article proceeding to discuss the dangers of fast food but not the benefits of vegetables!  Of course if you take things you don’t need or you take too much for an extended period of time it can be dangerous. In addition just because a supplement has certain benefits does not mean it is a miracle cure-all across the board. While it is valuable to scientifically determine what really works and for what purpose I don’t see it as a shortcoming that we are getting more specific.  And to claim that “it’s shaping up to be a pretty lousy week for the promise of dietary supplements to prevent serious diseases” is a downright laughable straw man in a sea of big pharma agendas especially considering the ubiquitous reminders and explanations that that’s not the point! 

The study itself provides valuable insight into supplement use in older women.  Unless afflicted with certain conditions such as iron deficiency anemia or a heavy menstrual flow women especially postmenopausal women don’t need and should avoid iron in the first place. One of the first things I learned in my dietetic internship many years ago is that iron is contraindicated in postmenopausal women as it is contraindicated for men.  Iron can increase cardiovascular risk.  Postmenopausal women no longer protected by estrogen have increased risk of CVD. The average age of the women in this particular study was 62 at the start - which means they were in their late 70s / early 80s at the end. As many of you know popular multivitamin and mineral supplements often have without iron versions for this very reason as well as other concerns in the elderly.

The bottom line:  Supplements should be tailored to your individual needs by a knowledgeable health-care practitioner.  As for the media do your homework. Read the article (not the headlines) and always ask me your doctor or another qualified healthcare professional when you have a question or something doesn’t seem right.  It’s a jungle of (mis)information overload and competing agendas out there. Don’t go it alone and always do what is best based on your health profile rather than demographic generalizations.