Yesterday, for some reason, my email inbox lit up with folks asking for multivitamin recommendations. It was a welcome change from the usual offers of Nigerian Prince diamond fortunes and threats of paternity suits. (For the last time, I was not at Burning Man in 1998. That is not my son. But you look pretty cute in a pachouli oil sort of way, so drop me a line once he’s off to college.)
It wasn’t until I cracked open the New York Times that I figured out what all the micronutrient madness was about. A new clinical trial presented at an American Association for Cancer Research conference showed that older male doctors who took a daily multivitamin had an 8% less chance of cancer.
Yes, I know. Yay vitamins! Now, calm down a second, put on your rational pants, and let’s look at why this isn’t such a big deal.
First, we need to break down the study itself. What troubles me most is that this study was on older adult males, yet the vitamins had no impact on prostate cancer, the most common form of cancer to strike, yes, older adult males. It’s a little like keeping a gun by your bed that misfires when pointed at home intruders, which is the primary reason anyone would keep a gun by their bed–that and zombies, of course. For the sake of this metaphor, let’s say that your gun can shoot zombies, but not living bad guys. Sounds to me like you need to take that gun back to Walmart!
Another problem with the study is who’s backing it:
The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health and a grant, initiated by the investigators, from the chemical company BASF. Pfizer provided the multivitamins. The sponsors did not influence the study design, data analysis or manuscript preparation, the authors said.
D’oh! BASF fabricates a lot of the components that go into multivitamins!
It’s upfront of them and all. I’m sure they’re a bunch of swell boys and girls, but if you read the Conflict of Interest Disclosures on the actual study, it’s a wibbly wobbly mess of pharmaceutical companies and supplement manufacturers. (Full disclosure. I work for Beachbody, a company that sells multivitamins, among other supplements, but I’m also sitting here bashing a pro-multivitamin study, which either makes me a paragon of credibility or an idiot for biting the hand that feeds–or some combination thereof.)
That said, to the credit of these researchers, even they recognize the limits of the study. (In fact, I found the NYT piece to be really balanced and helpful in general.)
“It would be a big mistake for people to go out and take a multivitamin instead of quitting smoking or doing other things that we have a higher suspicion play a bigger role, like eating a good diet and getting exercise,” Dr. Gaziano said. “You’ve got to keep wearing your sunscreen.”
This segues nicely into another issue–the larger social impact of the study. Despite the laws of physics, reason, and logic, America has become a nation of simultaneously stressed-out and lazy slobs. Research like this just exacerbates the problem. It’s hard to work out and eat right. It’s hard to avoid stress. It’s super easy, however, to pop a pill every morning with your Sinnibon and your Harbuck’s vente Crappachino. Bad news, Dumpy Joe–that little 8% doesn’t make up for the damage you’re doing with that terrible breakfast.
Multivitamins are great. I don’t take them anymore because I’ve geekily developed my own protocol using a hodge-podge of other micronutrient supplements (not to mention this weird stuff called real food), but I still strongly recommend them as an insurance policy–and only an insurance policy. When you have medical insurance, you don’t use it as an excuse to skip going to the doctor, right? If you have auto insurance, you don’t use it as an excuse to take a nap while driving down the interstate on your way to work, right? On the same note, a multivitamin is great to catch any vitamins and minerals you might accidentally miss in your diet of fresh produce, lean protein, and healthy fats, but it doesn’t replace jackshit. It supplements a healthy diet.
So if you’re going to email me asking what the best cancer-fighting multivitamin is, here’s my answer: 30-60 minutes of kick-butt, fun exercise, a giant salad, and ten minutes of meditation. That might be a hard pill to swallow, but it’ll improve your chances by a heck of a lot more than 8%.
And, for the record, even though I’m giving you this advice because I love you, I am in no way admitting to the fact that you might be my illegitimate hippy son.