Earlier this year, Khloe Kardashian posted this photo on her Instagram:
The photo included a caption: “Vitamin party!!!!” as well as some choice words for haters because she re-uses the plastic bags, okay?!?
She takes pills everyday, and notice how they’re labeled AM and PM. By my count, on Saturday alone she takes more than 15 pills. And Khloe isn’t the only celebrity who’s vitamin crazy.
Katy Perry tweeted this photo:
With the caption, “I’m all about the supplement & vitamin LYFE!”
Then there’s Rihanna who gets intravenous with her vitamin intake:
These “vitamin jabs” cost over $500 a pop.
That’s just a drop in the bucket, because as I dug further I found that over half of American adults take some form of vitamin daily. The vitamin and supplements industry is huge! It’s a $36 billion/year industry.
Now, I don’t take a daily multivitamin. Never have. So I wonder if I’m behind the curve, missing out on something most of America has known all along?
I decided to do some research, and I went down the rabbit hole of the vitamin craze, and it’s much deeper and darker than I imagined.
But let’s start at the beginning.
In 1931, Linus Pauling published a paper called “The Nature of Chemical Bonds.” This paper alone made him one of the pre-eminent scientists of his time. He married quantum physics and chemistry to explain the bonds between atoms in a molecule.
When asked about Pauling’s work, Albert Einstein responded, “It was too complicated for me.”
After his paper was published, Pauling was inducted to the National Academy of Sciences, received a tenured position at Cal Tech, and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He was 30 years old.
His later research into hemoglobin and proteins laid the groundwork for microbiology.
The man was a genius.
So when Linus Pauling started advocating copious amounts of vitamin C to fight off the common cold, people believed the Nobel-prize winning, beloved chemist. Pauling had begun taking vitamin C when a fan recommended it, and shortly thereafter he wrote a paper recommending 3,000 mg/day (50 times the normal daily amount). He believed the common cold would soon be a footnote in human history.
As early as 1942, other scientists smelled something fishy. A paper published that year in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded,
“Under the conditions of this controlled study, in which 980 colds were treated . . . there is no indication that vitamin C alone, an antihistamine alone, or vitamin C plus an antihistamine have any important effect on the duration or severity of infections of the upper respiratory tract.”
After that, study after study showed no significant relationship between vitamin C intake and cold prevention. During his lifetime, Pauling never backed down. In fact, he doubled down, claiming vitamin C would be responsible for a 10% decrease in cancer and 25 year extension to life expectancy. In the words of a colleague, Pauling’s “fall was as great as any classic tragedy.”
The existence of Emergen-C and Airborne are evidence that Pauling’s effects are still felt today. In dozens of studies, vitamin C hasn’t been shown to prevent colds. Eventually Pauling claimed that taking vitamin C with Vitamin A, E, Selenium, and beta-carotene could cure a whole raft of illnesses including cancer, heart disease, and aging.
Over the years, vitamins began to be peddled in magazines and TV ads as cure-alls. High dosages of vitamins became a solution to health and happiness in pop culture.
Thus began vitamin mania.
Does that mean Rihanna is a sucker??
Just because Pauling was wrong about the common cold doesn’t mean vitamins are altogether wrong. So I looked into what the research says about vitamins. Aaaand the evidence is decidedly mixed.
- Multiple studies have indicated that a daily multivitamin doesn’t do much to boost the average person’s health. Dr. Eliseo Guallar at Johns Hopkins even stated, “We believe that it’s clear that vitamins are not working.”
- Some studies have found that those who take a vitamins live slightly shorter lives, including a study of smokers where those on a regular doseage of high-quality vitamins died earlier on average.
- However, there are a few studies that find benefits. A study from January 2015 found a slightly lowered risk of heart disease among women taking vitamins, but the effect was not seen among men.
- In an overarching study, the US Preventive Task Force concluded there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the use of multivitamins for the prevention of cancer or heart disease.
If there is an overwhelming case for vitamins, I didn’t find it in my research. Most of the studies I read were inconclusive or found negative effects.
But why then do people keep taking them?
The placebo effect
One reason why people keep taking Emergen-C, Airborne, vitamin jabs, gallons of pills, and multivitamins is because they think it will make them better, so they feel better.
It’s not clear that vitamins help you, but it’s not clear that they hurt you either. And if the placebo effect makes you feel a little better, maybe that’s the true value of vitamins.
This blew my mind.
The vitamin and supplements industry has very little oversight. A 1976 amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act limited the FDA’s oversight, and vitamins don’t have to go through the same rigorous testing as drugs. Vitamin companies are responsible for policing themselves. The end result for consumers is that vitamins and supplements are often mislabeled. Dosages are unchecked and often unnecessarily high. In some cases, so-called “vitamins” are actually crushed up house plants or rice powder or sugar pills
The FDA doesn’t have the power nor the resources to regulate the $36 billion industry.
Let’s be real though
So the verdict is still out on vitamins, but at this point I’m not exactly scrambling to get Rihanna’s intravenous vitamin boost, nor am I even convinced that I should be taking a multivitamin. The industry is sketchy at best, so I’m not sure I feel good supporting it.
At the same time, I can’t really blame Khloe. Taking vitamins is about optics for her. She can tell people her health game is “on point” and she gets to feel like she’s healthy. And who doesn’t want that?
Hit me up if you know something interesting about vitamins.
Merry Christmas next week. Enjoy your families, friends, etc. If someone has a cold, hydrate and use saline spray. Vitamin C doesn’t work.
Love you guys,