Are Vitamin D Supplements Worthless?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Vitamin D Supplements

Are We Asking The Right Question?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

are vitamin d supplements worthlessWe have been told that vitamin D is a miraculous “must have” vitamin. We have been told it’s not just important for healthy bones. It’s also important for a strong immune system, heart health, protection from cancer, and many other health benefits. We have been told that we should get our 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels tested and supplement with extra vitamin D if they are low.

Now, the latest headlines are saying all of that is wrong. They are telling us vitamin D supplements do not improve bone density or protect against falls and bone fractures. They are telling us to forget all the other claimed benefits of vitamin D. Those claims have been disproved. Forget about the 25-hydroxy vitamin D tests. They are a waste of money.

What is the truth? Why is it so confusing? Are vitamin D supplements worthless?  Let me guide you through the claims and counterclaims so you can discover the truth for yourself.

How Did Vitamin D Become So Popular?

are vitamin d supplements worthless popularLet’s start with a brief history of vitamin D. It all started with the industrial revolution in Northern Europe. Suddenly, children and adults in the large cities were spending the bulk of their waking hours in dark factories rather than outdoors on the farm. They were already living in northern latitudes where sunlight was weak during the winter months. To make matters worse pollution from the factories was creating a haze that blocked the sunlight.

That lead directly to the discovery that sunlight was crucial to our body’s ability to synthesize vitamin D and that vitamin D was essential for building strong bones. The solution to the public health crisis of rickets and osteomalacia was to fortify dairy products with vitamin D. The almost universal adaptation of vitamin D fortification virtually eliminated rickets and osteomalacia except in association with certain rare diseases. The two important lessons learned from this experience were:

  • Vitamin D is essential for healthy bone formation.
  • Vitamin D supplementation improves bone health for individuals who are deficient in vitamin D

As we discuss the latest findings, we need to keep in mind that these fundamental principles have not changed.

In the late 20th century our understanding of vitamin D took another leap with the discovery that vitamin D receptors were not restricted to bone cells. Almost every cell in our body contained vitamin D receptors. That lead to studies showing that people with low vitamin D intakes were more likely to experience heart disease, cancer, some autoimmune diseases, and infectious diseases such as flu than people with high vitamin D intakes.

The final leap in our understanding of vitamin D took place when the medical profession started routinely testing blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. That is when we discovered that some people who appeared to have adequate intake of vitamin D and/or adequate exposure to sunlight had low blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. Furthermore, follow-up studies showed that low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels correlated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and infectious disease. The important lessons learned from these experiments were:

  • Vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased risk of multiple diseases.
  • 25-hydroxy vitamin D tests are the best way to measure vitamin D deficiency.

Once again, these fundamental principles have not changed.

What Did The Study Show?

are vitamin d supplements worthless studyThe study (MJ Bolland et al, Lancet Diabetes Endocrinology 2018) behind the headlines was a meta-analysis of 81 randomized, placebo-controlled studies with a total of 53,537 subjects that looked at the effect of vitamin D supplementation in elderly populations on bone mineral density, bone fractures, and falls.

The meta-analysis only included studies in which vitamin D intake was the sole variable. In many cases the subjects were not taking a calcium supplement. If they were taking a calcium supplement, both the vitamin D group and placebo group were taking the same amount of calcium.

 

The results were unequivocal. In this study vitamin D supplementation had no effect on bone mineral density, bone fractures, or falls in elderly populations. The authors concluded “There is little justification to use vitamin D supplements to maintain or improve musculoskeletal health.”

 

Is this conclusion justified? Let’s put the findings of this study into a broader perspective.

 

Are We Asking The Right Questions?

are vitamin d supplements worthless holistic approachBefore throwing out our vitamin D supplements let’s ask whether this study is asking the right question. I have covered this topic in detail in my new book “Slaying The Supplement Myths” (https://slayingthesupplementmyths.com) with respect to similar studies that had called into question the value of calcium supplements for bone health. Let me cover the highlights here.

In my book I created the graphic on the right to put the question of who benefits from supplementation into perspective. For the purposes of this discussion, I will just focus on poor diet (or, in the case of vitamin D, poor exposure to sunlight). As I discussed above, science shows that people who are not getting enough vitamin D from diet and sunlight benefit from vitamin D supplementation. Unfortunately, vitamin D enthusiasts and some supplement companies have muddied the waters by going beyond what good science shows and suggesting or implying that everyone will benefit from vitamin D supplementation.

This is part of the problem. Once you have created a paradigm that everyone will benefit from vitamin D supplementation, that paradigm is easy to disprove. If someone already has adequate, or nearly adequate, levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D, would we expect additional vitamin D to make a difference? Of course not, but that is exactly the question the most recent study was asking.

In discussing the limitations of their study, the authors said: “It is possible that trials of populations with low baseline 25-hydroxy vitamin D might produce different results because only 4 trials, involving 831 participants (1.6% of all participants), reported mean baseline 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels lower than 25 nmol/L (the level indicating vitamin D deficiency).

In other words, the study did not measure the effect of vitamin D supplementation for people who were vitamin D deficient. The only take-home lesson from this study is that people with adequate, or near adequate, vitamin D status do not benefit from vitamin D supplementation. That is a “no-brainer.”

 

Vitamin D And A Bone Healthy Lifestyle

are vitamin d supplements worthless garbage in outThe other glaring deficiency of this study is that it was only measuring the effect of vitamin D on bone health. They purposely excluded any other factor that might influence bone health. That was a fatal flaw because healthy bone requires a holistic approach, not individual nutrients. In my book Slaying the Supplement Myths  I refer to this as a “bone healthy lifestyle.”

The most important feature of a “bone healthy lifestyle” is this:

  • Calcium, vitamin D, and resistance (weight bearing) exercise are all essential for healthy bones.
  • However, none of them is sufficient by itself. You need all three. You need a holistic approach if you wish to build strong bones.

Simply put, that means unless you include adequate calcium and exercise there is no reason to expect vitamin D supplementation to help build strong bones. Unfortunately, none of the studies included in the recent meta-analysis took a holistic approach to bone health. Some included calcium, but many didn’t. Resistance exercise was never considered. The studies were doomed to failure.

When you include flawed studies in your meta-analysis, you have what computer programmers call “Garbage in. Garbage out.” A meta-analysis can never be stronger than the individual studies it includes.

Other features of a “bone healthy lifestyle” include:

  • We need more than calcium and vitamin D for strong bones. We need magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, vitamin C and vitamin K. If we are deficient in any of these, calcium will not be utilized as efficiently.
  • The foods we eat are also important. Our bones serve as a buffer system to keep our bodies slightly alkaline. Every time we eat acid-forming foods a little bit of bone is dissolved to neutralize the acid. For optimal bone health we need to minimize acid-forming foods and eat more alkaline-forming foods. That means we need to avoid sodas, sweets and refined grains. We also need to minimize meats, eggs, and dairy. Instead, we should focus on fruits, vegetables, peas, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts.
  • Beware of drugs. The list of common medications that dissolve bones is a long one. Some of the worst offenders are anti-inflammatory steroids such as cortisone and prednisone, drugs to treat depression, drugs to treat acid reflux, and excess thyroid hormone. I am not suggesting that you should avoid properly prescribed medications. I would suggest you ask your doctor or pharmacist whether the drugs you are taking adversely affect bone density. If they do, you should pay a lot more attention to the other aspects of a “bone healthy lifestyle.”

 

Are Vitamin D Supplements Worthless?

are vitamin d supplements worthless bone healthNow we can come back to the question “Are vitamin D supplements worthless?” as the recent headlines have suggested. If you phrase the question as “Does everyone benefit from vitamin D supplementation?” or “Is vitamin D supplementation alone sufficient to build strong bones?” the answer is a clear no.

However, those are the wrong questions. If you ask: “Does vitamin D supplementation benefit people who are vitamin D-deficient?” the answer is a clear yes. If you ask: “Does a holistic approach that includes resistance exercise, adequate calcium, and adequate vitamin D improve bone health?” the answer is likely to be yes as well.

What about the headlines claiming that vitamin D is also worthless for strengthening the immune system and reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and auto-immune diseases?  The studies on which these claims are based suffer from the same flaws. They are asking the same wrong questions.

My recommendations:

  • Have your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D tested on a regular basis. I have them tested each year when I get my physical.
  • If your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D are below 25 nmol/L (which the NIH considers deficient), you are likely to benefit from vitamin D supplementation. If they are above 50 nmol/L (which the NIH considers sufficient), vitamin D supplementation is unlikely to provide additional benefit. However, that level of vitamin D doesn’t guarantee that you will have strong bones. You also need sufficient calcium and resistance exercise.
  • If your blood levels are in the insufficient range (between 25 nmol/L and 50 nmol/L), the situation is more complicated. If you are close to 50 nmol/L, you may benefit slightly from adding a vitamin D supplement, but the benefit will be too small to show up in a clinical study such as the one that resulted in the recent headlines. My advice is to look at your diet and medication use. If they put you at risk for low bone density, my recommendation would be to add a vitamin D supplement – along with adequate calcium and resistance exercise, of course. If you are closer to 25 nmol/L, you will likely benefit from a vitamin D supplement along with adequate calcium and exercise.
  • Don’t think of vitamin D supplementation as a “magic bullet” that will solve all your ills. Instead, think of it as just one component of a holistic approach to a bone healthy lifestyle.

 

The Bottom Line

 

A recent meta-analysis concluded that vitamin D supplementation did not improve bone mineral density, reduce bone fractures, or reduce falls in the elderly. While this conclusion was definitive, the study was asking the wrong questions.

  • We know that vitamin D improves bone health for people who are vitamin D-deficient. However, only 1.6% of the people in this study were vitamin D-deficient at the beginning of the study. That means the study was really asking: “If people have adequate, or near adequate, vitamin D status, does vitamin D supplementation provide any additional benefit?”  The answer to that question is a “no-brainer.”  There is no reason to expect that additional vitamin D would provide benefit.
  • We know that while vitamin D is essential for building strong bones, it is not sufficient by itself. Strong bones require a holistic approach that includes resistance exercise, adequate calcium, and adequate vitamin D. However, this study only looked at the effect of vitamin D on bone health. Calcium and exercise were excluded from consideration. That means the study was really asking: “Is vitamin D a “magic bullet” that can build strong bones by itself?” Again, there is no reason to expect vitamin D to provide much benefit under those conditions.

My recommendations:

  • Have your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D tested on a regular basis. I have them tested each year when I get my physical.
  • If your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D are low, you are likely to benefit from vitamin D supplementation. If they are already optimal, vitamin D supplementation is unlikely to provide additional benefit.
  • Don’t think of vitamin D supplementation as a “magic bullet” that will keep your bones strong by itself. Instead, think of it as just one component of a holistic “bone healthy lifestyle.”

 

For more details and to see my detailed recommendations, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Jo Anne

    |

    Very informative with great backup to information.

    Reply

  • Pat

    |

    Thank you Dr. Chaney, Its much cleaner now.
    Pat

    Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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