The first issue to be discussed in relation to vitamin and mineral supplements is whether or not we should be taking them at all. Not everyone on the alternative side of the cancer treatment fence is in agreement. And of course it is a fundamental question. So let us now consider the arguments given on both sides.
To supplement or not
The arguments against taking supplements
- We should be able to get all the nutrients we need from a healthy diet. So rather than take supplements we should concentrate on making sure we eat a properly balanced diet.
- Supplements themselves have gone through some form of processing – and therefore suffer from the defects attributed to other processed foods. Also we cannot be sure that supplements contain the levels of vitamins that they claim to contain. If we argue that pharmaceutical companies cannot be trusted to tell us the truth about drugs, then the same arguments apply to the health supplements industry. They cannot be trusted to tell us the truth about the real value of supplements.
- Vitamins and minerals work best when they are in organic combinations with other vitamins and minerals. In this form they work synergistically and so the resulting beneficial effect is maximized.
- Some synthetic supplements block the body’s access to natural sourced vitamins. This is just one of a number of potential dangers associated with indiscriminate intake of supplements.
- By taking supplements in large doses we are fooling ourselves that we are getting the essential nutrients we need for good health and so we pay less attention to the overall diet – which should be, as we have seen in the last section, almost entirely if not completely plant based.
- 6. Such large doses of vitamins and/or other supplements are potentially toxic.
The arguments in favor of taking supplements:
- 1. We need to take larger quantities of most vitamins and minerals than we can easily find in the food we eat. Vitamin C is an obvious example. An orange contains perhaps 50-70 mg. of vitamin C while Linus Pauling (of whom more later) recommended 6-18 grams per day (equivalent to between 85 and 257 oranges!) – and some people take much more.
- There is no evidence at all that vitamin C has ever harmed anyone. In fact the number of people who are believed to have been harmed by any vitamin or mineral supplement is negligible to non-existent. Drugs, used properly and improperly, are known to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. Studies that purport to show lack of effectiveness of vitamins – beta-carotene for example – are based on extremely low dose levels.
- We know that the food we eat is depleted of vital nutrients by the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides and irradiation. In fact, given the wide use of pesticides, it is likely that most vegetables are poor in minerals (pesticides leach minerals from the soils). Since the mineral content of vegetables comes from the soil, diet is unlikely to provide what we need. In the case of animal husbandry, intensive farming techniques combined with the use of antibiotics and hormones make the resulting food a poor source of wholesome nutrition.
- Much of the food we eat has had most of the vital nutrients destroyed by heating during the cooking process.
- Pollution depletes our body’s vitamin resources. The more polluted our environment the greater our need for higher levels of vitamin intake.
- There is the possibility that cancer is a deficiency disease – and it may possibly be a deficiency in trace minerals. If so, we need to correct that deficiency in some way – and that means taking supplements. A vegetarian diet alone may not be sufficient because even vegetarians get cancer. In fact vegetarians, although their overall cancer risks are lower than for meat eaters, have higher incidences of colorectal cancer, a fact that no-one really understands – though it may be caused by higher intake of soy products (the Japanese also have very high incidences of stomach, colon and liver cancers).
- There is strong evidence that prescription drugs deplete the body of vitamins and minerals. The more prescription drugs you take the worse the problem is. If you take prescription drugs then you really have no choice but to take supplements.
Weighing it all up
All these arguments on both sides of the dispute are good. Each of us has to weigh them up to arrive at a compromise that makes sense for us.
My own view is that we cannot rely on synthetic supplements alone – nor can we rely on fresh vegetables and fruit alone. Eating organic vegetables and fruit, preferably from a local producer, coupled with some supplements seems to me to be the necessary compromise. And although I see no way around the need to take synthetic vitamin C in large doses, I recognize that the 50- 70 mg of vitamin C in an orange is very likely equivalent to much higher quantities of synthetic vitamin C measured in terms of biological activity. And the orange doesn’t just have vitamin C. It also has citric acid (good) and all those other fruit molecules that make the orange an orange.