News flash: food is better than supplements for staying healthy

You may wonder why anything this obvious even needs to be reported as “news” in the first place. Yet that’s what’s happened this week over the issue of whether taking vitamin supplements can ward off cancer and other serious diseases better than eating healthy food does. Pitching this supplement claim is like a dream fantasy for legitimate supplement manufacturers and snake oil salesmen alike, so both groups will be disappointed by this “news”.

Sally Scroggs, health education manager at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Medical Center’s Cancer Prevention Center, has announced in a news release:

“Researchers are still unsure about whether or not minerals, herbs and other plants taken in pill, capsule, tablet or liquid form actually prevent cancer.”

Researchers may be unsure, but luckily for the supplement industry, a gullible public remains profitably convinced that not only should we all take expensive vitamins and supplements, but that it simply is not humanly possible to consume the nutrients that we need with mere food alone.  

Those who try to convince us include people like Dr. William Lane in his 1992 supplement-pushing book called Sharks Don’t Get Cancer, suggesting that the reason for this “fact” is the shark cartilage that sharks naturally possess (and that we should all be purchasing as a nutritional supplement to prevent cancer).

Or consider the phenomenally popular über-pitchman Dr. Joseph Mercola, whose disturbingly commercial website warns us that not only does sun damage NOT cause skin cancer (it’s all that sunscreen we slap on that causes cancer, he claims) but eating more rosemary, turmeric or Chinese ginger can actually prevent it.

I counted 59 categories (not products, but categories of expensive products) that Mercola will gladly sell you through his online store, all of which he claims are “proven” to cure what ails you or prevent what you don’t want to catch. He’ll even pay your family doctor a 15% commission on every Mercola supplement your doc can convince you and all other patients to buy.

Not so fast, warns Sally Scroggs. For example, supplement darlings vitamins E and C were found not to prevent cancer in credible research like both the large-scale Women’s Health Study and the Physicians’ Health Study II. And findings from other studies suggest that some supplements may actually increase cancer risk by affecting the balance of nutrients in the body.  Consider, for example, the cancer prevention study in Finland that demonstrated lung cancer rates of male smokers increased significantly when they took beta-carotene supplements.

You may have heard of the miraculous cancer-beating properties of antioxidants. But the National Cancer Institute itself answers the question Can antioxidants prevent cancer?” like this:

“Considerable laboratory evidence from chemical, cell culture, and animal studies indicates that antioxidants may slow or possibly prevent the development of cancer. However, information from recent clinical trials is less clear.

“In recent years, large-scale, randomized clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions.”

And that’s the key.  To swallow claim after claim about vitamin supplements and cancer prevention, we need to see hard facts. And according to the National Cancer Institute, we just don’t see that data, despite the miraculous claims by the likes of Lane, Mercola and other docs-turned-celebrity-pitchmen.

Until we do see the data, Sally Scroggs recommends:

“If you eat lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, you should get the nutrients, including fiber, vitamins and minerals, that your body needs to lower your chances of getting diseases like cancer.

“Taking a pill cannot replace a healthy diet.

She also suggests that we should:

  1. eat plenty of foods loaded with healthful nutrients such as selenium, lycopene, resveratrol and vitamins A, C and E.
  2. avoid processed meats like bacon, ham, pastrami, salami, sausage, hot dogs and pepperoni because cancer-causing substances form when these meats are preserved, damaging human DNA and increasing the risk of colorectal cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
  3. limit red meat like pork, lamb and beef to three servings per week, in favour of skinless chicken and fish.
  4. avoid charring or burning meat, poultry or fish under high temperature on  the barbecue, which can cause heterocyclic amines to form (linked to increased risk for stomach and colorectal cancers).

See also:  

7 thoughts on “News flash: food is better than supplements for staying healthy

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  4. “…In recent years, large-scale, randomized clinical trials reached inconsistent conclusions…”

    That’s the KEY MESSAGE here. Show me some outcomes. Show me some PROOF, not just the snake-oil claims from those who stand to gain most from product sales.


  5. Thank you for the good writeup. We have all been hoodwinked into believing the advertisements for expensive supplements and vitamins. “Just pop a pill” has become accepted practice instead of being responsible for the food that we put into our mouths as well as daily exercise and lifestyle choices.

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