Ask Dr Google if you need to take vitamins, and you’ll get the emphatic answer that, no, you don’t, as you get all the nutrients you need from eating a healthy, balanced diet. Ask the more pointed question, “Are vitamins a waste of money?” and you get an even more muscular response that not only would you do better flushing your dollars down a toilet, but supplements may even damage your health.
And that is the standard medical view about vitamins today, even though more than 70 percent of Americans take at least one multivitamin daily, spending around $12 billion a year in the process.
After pushing the balanced diet approach for years, the American Medical Association begrudgingly accepted that, at least, vitamins probably didn’t do any harm. But this position changed in 2019 when a major study concluded that vitamins and supplements that contain calcium or vitamin D might even increase your risk of a stroke—and no vitamin or mineral could protect you from heart disease or help you live longer.
“The panacea or magic bullet that people keep searching for in dietary supplements isn’t there,” said lead researcher Erin Michose from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.1
The ground had been prepared a year earlier by another headline-grabbing study that had come to similar conclusions: taking a multivitamin or mineral supplement won’t lower your chances of getting heart disease, the West’s biggest killer.2
Then there was the testy think piece—again by doctors from Johns Hopkins—that became famous more for its headline than its content. The headline simply stated: “Enough is enough: Stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements.3
A new study agrees. Indeed, supplements won’t do much for your health, but that’s because the amount you’re supposed to take every day, the “recommended daily allowance” or RDA, means they have been set up to fail.
The RDA has a very modest ambition: to prevent diseases of nutritional deficiency, such as scurvy or beriberi, and to maintain some semblance of health in the already healthy, essentially providing that little top-up to the nutrients you’re already getting from your balanced diet.
So when researchers test for the benefits of supplements at RDA levels, especially among older or sick people, they usually come away empty-handed.
Many of the current RDA values were set as far back as 80 years ago, and often based on flimsy evidence garnered from research projects that lasted just a few months. One project—which looked for the amount of vitamin C needed to heal wounds—took place in 1944, toward the tail end of the Second World War. Not only was the research flimsy, it was also unethical, although its findings are still accepted today.
Researchers at the notorious Sorby Research Institute in the UK were able to carry out a range of medical experiments on conscientious objectors, and for the wound-healing research they starved 20 recruits before drip-feeding them controlled amounts of the vitamin.
The malnourished recruits suffered life-threatening emergencies during the trial, and many were left with long-term health problems, researchers at the University of Washington have recently uncovered.4
By the end of the torturous trial, the Sorby Institute researchers declared that just 10 mg of vitamin C would speed wound healing. To this day, the World Health Organization recommends this amount to encourage the formation of scar tissue.
But the body actually needs 95 mg a day to support wound healing, the Washington researchers say. In their own analysis, they found that the recommended 10 mg produced scars that were 42 percent weaker than those generated from taking 80 mg.
So, how could we have gotten it so wrong for so long? Nobody was doing the homework, the Washington researchers say: the Sorby recommendations were being accepted at face value, and their data hadn’t been reanalyzed until now, nearly 80 years later.
If current wound healing guidelines are off by a factor of nine, what else about vitamin levels is wrong? Pretty much all of it, it seems, because the idea of the balanced diet is a myth.
One of the most famous champions of high-dose vitamins was biochemist Linus Pauling, who advocated taking up to 10 g of vitamin C a day, but perhaps the most influential has been Dr Emanuel Cheraskin, whose work forms the basis of the SONA (suggested optimal nutrient allowance) levels that we really should be taking.
SONA levels are often 10 times RDAs—and that’s because you aren’t going to get the nutrients you need just from the food you eat. “We had assumed that we would find diet important to good health, but we also found that even with an optimal diet, it is important to take supplements,” Cheraskin wrote in a paper to the International Academy of Science.5
Not that many eat an optimal diet, but even those who do are likely eating food that is not providing the nutrients our bodies need. Processing, transportation, storage, canning and cooking all add to the time before it reaches our stomach, and these steps “destroy nutrients in a way that’s hard for even the most health conscious to combat,” he writes.
We’re often not in tip-top health to begin with. We get stressed, we don’t exercise, we smoke or drink, we are exposed to pollutants in the environment, we take medication, and we age, and all these factors deplete our natural stores of nutrients.
Then there’s the balanced diet we’re all supposedly eating. Around half of all Americans who end up hospitalized are malnourished—starved of the essential nutrients their bodies need—because they eat food that is tasty and addictive but depleted of nutrients.6
Although shocking, this is not surprising, given that 90 percent of Americans do not eat even two cups of vegetables a day—and as Cheraskin has pointed out, even those who do are probably not getting the nutritional boost they need.
The result is a generation of malnourished people and an epidemic of chronic disease, especially in the West, even though food is in plentiful supply.7
In the words of cardiologist Mike Fenster, “One of the defining characteristics of the modern Western diet is replacing fresh fruits and vegetables with refined carbohydrates and other processed offerings. These dietary choices directly disrupt our metabolism—in particular, our individual gut microbiome—and produce a wide range of disabilities and diseases.”8
To work out the levels of nutrients we need to take every day, Cheraskin teamed up with William Ringsdorf, both researchers at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, and profiled around 13,500 people to discover those who were “symptom and sign-free of suffering” over 15 years.
From that data, they calculated the levels of nutrients the healthiest participants were getting, both from a healthy diet and from supplements, and calculated the average amount of vitamins we need each day to maintain ‘optimum health,’ which is living without any aches, pains or symptoms of chronic disease—essentially, living a life that is free of disease.
As Cheraskin and Ringsdorf discovered, “to promote wellbeing, protein levels might need to be tenfold that proposed by the National
Using these calculations, Alex Schauss at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine developed the SONA scale for achieving optimum health (see page 21), although Cheraskin simplified his findings into lists of foods to eat liberally, sparingly and to avoid (see table above).
The epidemic of chronic disease has put paid to the idea of the balanced diet. Heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and obesity are diseases of bad diets and malnutrition, which low levels of supplements will do nothing to counter. However, doctors don’t seem to have noticed, and as long as the emphasis remains on treatment and not prevention, they never will.