Food Hospital TV on supplements

  • 9 Nov 2011
  • Reading time 5 mins
Read later

Yesterday’s (Tuesday 8th November) Food Hospital ITV programme contained lots of good advice, and results, about eating anti-inflammatory rich foods for psoriasis, a low GL diet for protecting your liver, and a possible role for probiotics in a girl with hair loss and digestive problems. But the report on supplements had a major flaw - vitamin C reduces risk of breast cancer. Read on to find out more.

Also, a singer with acid reflux made a big improvement cutting right down on alcohol, fizzy drinks and junk food. This, of course, should be the first advice a GP gives, before dishing out PPI drugs such as Nexium for suppressing stomach acid. Without enough stomach acid many nutrients cannot be effectively absorbed, making matters worse, not better. All good stuff. By the way, if you have psoriasis my Special Report gives you a more comprehensive strategy and, if you are concerned about your liver function, the 9 Day Liver Detox Diet is the fast track back to health.

Supplements – good or bad?

But then there was the usual ‘investigation’ into this old chestnut, interviewing Dr Alan Stewart. He made the point that the healthiest people who have better diets take supplements, saying that they are the ones who need them the least. But, you have to wonder if that’s one reason why they are healthier. He also implied that a few small diet changes could get you up to the basic ‘recommended’ levels. I think this is very misleading for two reasons. Firstly, among children, and especially adolescents, the majority fail to get the basic ‘reference nutrient intake’ (below the RDA) for iron, zinc, magnesium, and selenium. Almost half of teenage girls have an intake for iron and magnesium below that which defines gross deficiency.

Around half of adult women and older girls and a fifth of men and older boys had intakes of selenium at this gross deficiency level. Teenage boys are achieving only an average of 7.9mg of zinc – roughly half the RDA. At the other end of the spectrum older people, who absorb nutrients less effectively, are rife with deficiencies. Two in five over 60 have insufficient B12 to stop accelerated brain shrinkage. The majority are vitamin K and D deficient – and those that are approximately double their risk of cancer and memory problems. Both vitamin D, K and B12 are vital for bones and the prevention of osteoporosis. About 80% are deficient in magnesium, a known promoter of high blood pressure and heart disease. You don’t plug these kind of gaps with small dietary changes. But the other reason the 'you can get it all from your diet' statement is misleading is that quite of few of these RDAs are hopelessly out of date.

The RDA for vitamin D is a mere 5mcg, half that estimated to be needed by children, pregnant women and the elderly, yet few even achieve this. At the very least the viewers should have been encouraged to eat nutrient rich foods, such as seeds, nuts and seafood, rich in zinc, magnesium, iron, B12, vitamin D, instead of being discouraged to take supplements. However, even this is unlikely to be enough. Hence the value in taking supplements.

Vitamin C reduces, not increases, breast cancer risk

But then, as is so common in the medical party line on supplements, Dr Alan Stewart threw in something scary, eluding to a potential risk of vitamin C supplementation and increased breast cancer risk. This relates to a survey in 2008 that showed a hint of an increased risk of breast cancer between those supplementing no vitamin C and those supplementing over 711mg. The authors describe it as a ‘weak positive association’. These kind of associations often occur by chance so you have to look at what other studies show before jumping to conclusions – especially if the advice might be to put people off doing something that is good for them.

Since 2008 there have been quite a few good studies which report exactly the opposite association – that supplementation with vitamin C reduces risk. For example let’s look at three recent studies published this year. One study, in August this year, followed women who had taken supplements for 10 or more years and found that postmenopausal women taking vitamin C supplements had almost half of risk of developing breast cancer. Supplementing zinc more than halved risk in both pre and post-menopausal women. Other supplements (multivitamins, vitamin E and beta-carotene) also reduced risk. Another, published in the Cancer Journal in September, shows that women who have had a breast cancer diagnosis and supplemented vitamin C, E and multivitamins had both a reduced risk of recurrence and mortality compared to those not supplementing. Another study, in February, shows that vitamin use shortly after diagnosis is associated with reduced recurrence and mortality.

The author conclude “Our results do not support the current recommendation that breast cancer patients should avoid use of vitamin supplements.” The odds are very much in favour of extra vitamin C in particular, and supplemental antioxidants in general, helping to reduce risk, recurrence and cancer mortality. The strongest evidence exists for vitamin C and zinc, which I recommend both women and men to supplement on a daily basis. With one in eight women in Britain being diagnosed with breast cancer a more responsible message would be letting people know that the weight of the evidence shows that supplementing vitamin C, zinc, a antioxidant rick multivitamins, appears to reduce risk of getting and dying from breast cancer, not scaring them away. Of course, diet is vital but it isn't an either or situation. If the healthiest people both eat a good diet and take supplements we should follow their lead.