Can Supplements Help You Live Longer?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Live Longer, Supplements and Health

Are Supplements The Fountain Of Youth?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

It is buyer beware in the supplement industry. I have discussed the dark side of the supplement industry in the first half of my book “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”

I called that section of my book “The Lies of the Charlatans.”  In it, I detailed many of the false claims that some manufacturers make for their supplements. There are claims that their supplements will…

  • Cure what ails you (Just fill in the disease of your choice. Some company will try to tell you they have the cure).
  • Make the pounds melt away.
  • Make you smarter.
  • Make you stronger.
  • Improve your sex life.

Can supplements help you live longer?

The list seems endless…Except for one! I don’t know of any supplement company claiming their supplements make you live longer. Nobody is claiming their supplements are the “Fountain of Youth.”

However, many of you have been asking me about headlines claiming that a recent study showed that supplements don’t extend lives. Could it be that the study generating the recent headlines was designed to disprove a claim nobody was making?

In this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I will analyze the study and answer two questions:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it important?

How Was The Study Done?

Every few years the National Center for Health Statistics (a division of the CDC) conducts a massive survey of factors affecting the health of the American population. This survey is called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The NHANES survey includes interviews and examinations of thousands of people across the country.

The interview includes dietary, health-related, demographic, and socioeconomic questions. The examination component includes laboratory tests plus medical, dental, and physiological measurements. The NHANES database is used for many studies such as this one.

The current study (F Chen et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, doi:10.7326/M18-2478, published April 9, 2019) used data from 30,899 US adults aged 20 years or more who participated in 6 cycles of the NHANES survey from 1999 to 2010. The dietary portion of the survey taken by these participants contained questions on the dietary supplements they had used in the 30 days prior to the survey.

The NHANES data were linked to the National Death Index mortality data so that the effect of nutrient intake and supplement use on mortality could be assessed. The median follow-up for the participants in the study was 6.1 years. During that time, 3613 deaths occurred, 945 from heart disease and 805 from cancer.

Of the participants:

  • 71% were white, 11% were non-Hispanic black, and 13% were Hispanic.
  • 9% were female, 49.1% were male.
  • 2 % of the participants reported supplement use in the 30 days preceding the survey.
  • Among the supplement users, the major supplements reported were:
    • Multivitamin/multimineral (74.8%).
    • Vitamin C (40.3%).
    • Calcium (38.6%).
    • Vitamin D (37.6%).
    • Zinc (34.5%).
    • Magnesium (33.3%).

When they compared supplement users with non-supplement users, the supplement users were:

  • More likely to be female and non-Hispanic white.
  • Have higher levels of family education and income.
  • Eat a healthier diet and be more physically active.
  • Less likely to be current smokers, heavy drinkers, or obese.

These are all factors that favor a longer lifespan.  However, the supplement users were also:

  • Older (average age = 50.7 versus 42.8 for non-supplement users).
  • Sicker (They were more likely to have cancer, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels).

These are factors that favor a shorter lifespan.

These are what statisticians refer to as confounding variables. They can influence the results of a study in unexpected ways.

 

Can Supplements Help You Live Longer?

When they looked at the raw data, supplemental use of most-individual nutrients was associated with a lower risk for all-cause death. In simple terms, supplementation appeared to increase lifespan.

However, when the data were statistically adjusted for all of the confounding variables (age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, physical activity, smoking, alcohol intake, diet quality, BMI [a measure of obesity], and diseases the participants had when they entered the study), the effect of supplementation on lifespan became non-significant.

The authors concluded: “Use of dietary supplements was not associated with mortality benefits among a nationally representative sample of U.S adults.”  Those are the headlines you saw from your favorite news source.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Let’s go back to the two questions I posed about the study at the beginning of this article.

  • Is it true? Can supplements help you live longer?  The study had many weaknesses, which the authors identified in their discussion. Of course, the people writing the headlines never bothered to read the paper, so they were unaware of its weaknesses. Here are some of the major weaknesses reported by the authors:
  • The NHANES questionnaire only asked about supplement use over the preceding 30 days. We have no idea how long the participants had been using those supplements. It could have been years, or it could have been a month. In the words of the authors: “Dietary supplement use was assessed in the previous 30 days, which may not reflect habitual use or capture changes in use [before or] after the baseline assessment.”
  • The supplement users were more likely to have been diagnosed with health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It is well documented that diagnosed health conditions motivate some people to initiate supplement use.
  • Finally, there were multiple confounding variables in this study. The conclusion of the study rested on a statistical adjustment of the data to correct for those confounding variables. In the words of the authors: “Residual confounding may still be present.”

That last point reminds me of the famous Mark Twain quote: “There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there are statistics.” Don’t misunderstand me. I am not accusing the study authors of lying. They are some of the top scientists in the field. What Mark Twain and I are saying is that when you rely on statistics, sometimes bad things happen. You can come to erroneous conclusions.

  • Is it important? Even if the conclusion of this study is true, we should ask if it is important. If there had been widespread claims that supplements make you live longer, this would be an important finding. However, nobody I know is making that claim. This study simply reaffirms what most people assumed anyway. There is no fountain of youth.

By the way, the situation is similar for diets. There have been a few claims in the past that healthy diets will help you live longer. However, when those claims have been rigorously evaluated, there is very little effect of diet on lifespan. There have been some studies that have reported a decrease in premature death due to heart disease or cancer. However, death from all causes usually remains unchanged. Once again, the fountain of youth has eluded us.

You may be asking, if supplements don’t increase lifespan, what good are they? The answer is simple. They increase healthspan. Simply put, that means you spend a greater portion of your lifespan in good health.

Of course, now you are probably really confused. You’ve read all those headlines saying that supplements don’t have any effect on your health. The problem is that the studies generating those headlines are flawed. They aren’t asking the right questions. When you look at populations with poor diets, increased needs, genetic predisposition, and/or pre-existing disease, supplementation is often beneficial. I cover this in the second half of my book, “Slaying the Supplement Myths.”  That section is called “The Myths Of The Naysayers.”

 

The Bottom Line

 

A recent study reported that supplements do not reduce mortality. They won’t make you live longer. In this article I provide a detailed analysis of that article. The two important take-aways are:

  • There are several weaknesses in the study. The conclusion may not be accurate.
  • Even if it is accurate, it may not be important. If there had been widespread claims that supplements make you live longer, this would be an important finding. However, nobody I know is making that claim. This study simply reaffirms what most people assumed anyway. There is no fountain of youth. Could it be that the study generating the recent headlines was designed to disprove a claim nobody was making?

The real benefit of supplementation isn’t in increasing your lifespan. It is increasing your healthspan. I cover that in my book, “Slaying The Supplement Myths.”

For more details 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)

  • Tzvi

    |

    Your statement that supplements increase healthspan but not lifespan is hard to understand. After all, if a person eats foods that associated with cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, he’s likely to get a heart attack at a younger age than he might otherwise, and therefore more likely to die younger than he would have if he’s eaten a heart healthy diet.

    I enjoy your health tips and read them eagerly. Thanks, Tzvi

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Tzvi,

      I admit it is not obvious. However, study after study shows that you can decrease heart attack deaths without significantly increasing life span in the overall population. The key is that most studies look at populations, and you are thinking in term of individuals. The individual who would have had a heart attack lives a longer life, but will eventually die of something else at about the same age as everyone else (statistically speaking). That is why many studies now talk about preventing premature heart attacks.

      However, not everyone who has a heart attack dies. Unfortunately, once they have had the heart attack, their quality of life may never be the same. So, it is safe to say that a heart healthy diet will decrease premature death due to heart attacks and will increase the years of high quality life (increase healthspan). But a heart healthy diet may not increase lifespan.

      I hope that explanation helps.

      Reply

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Latest Article

Do Ultra-Processed Foods Make You Fat?

Posted June 25, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Secret For Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Do ultra-processed foods make it harder to loose weight?

ultra-processed foods questionsIt is so confusing. It seems like everyone has a magical weight loss diet. You just follow their diet and the pounds will melt away. The problem is that everyone’s recommendations are different. What is the average consumer to think? Is the best diet low fat, low carb, low sugar, Paleo, Keto, or vegan? Or is intermittent fasting the secret to successful weight loss?

What if the secret to weight loss was none of the diets mentioned above, yet was something common to all of them?

The one common feature of every popular diet is they cut out sodas and processed foods and replace them with whole unprocessed foods. What if cutting out highly processed foods was the secret to successful weight loss, and none of the other restrictions of the various diets really mattered?

There are lots of studies suggesting that ultra-processed foods might be the problem. [Note: In the scientific community the term highly processed foods has been replaced with ultra-processed foods. There are subtle differences between the two terms, but for our purposes we will consider them identical]. Consumption of ultra-processed foods has been shown to be associated with overeating, obesity, poor health outcomes, and premature death.

For example, consumption of ultra-processed foods and obesity have increased in parallel. Today ultra-processed foods constitute the majority of calories consumed in America, and 40% of Americans are now obese.

However, associations don’t prove cause and effect. In the words of the authors of the latest study: “There has never been a randomized controlled trial demonstrating any beneficial effects of reducing ultra-processed foods or deleterious effects of increasing ultra-processed foods in the diet.”

The latest study (KD Hall et al, Cell Metabolism, 30: 1-11, 2019 ) was the first randomized controlled trial designed to test the hypothesis that consumption of ultra-processed foods leads to obesity.

 

How Was The Study Done?

ultra-processed foods studyTwenty overweight subjects (10 men and 10 women) volunteered for the study. Their average age was 31 and their average BMI was 27, which means they were overweight, but not obese. All were weight-stable in the months preceding the study.

They were admitted to the metabolic ward at the NIH where every aspect of what they ate and the exercise they got was controlled. The subjects were randomly assigned to consume an ultra-processed or an unprocessed diet for two weeks followed by the alternative diet for the final two weeks.

During the study the subjects were given three meals a day that provided twice the calories they were accustomed to eating plus unlimited snacks. They were instructed to eat as much or as little as they desired. The calories consumed were calculated based on how much food they left on their plates.

The ultra-processed diet and unprocessed diets were matched with respect to:

  • Total calories in the food portions given to the subjects.
  • Caloric density (calories per serving size).
  • Macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, & protein).
  • Sugars, fiber, and sodium.

The ultra-processed and unprocessed diets were neither low fat, low carb, or high protein. The caloric composition was around 48% carbohydrate, 35% fat, and 17% protein.

However, because of the differences between ultra-processed and unprocessed foods, it was impossible to match all parameters. For example, the ultra-processed and unprocessed diets differed significantly in:

  • Added sugar: 54% of the sugar in the ultra-processed diet was added sugar versus only 1% added sugar in the unprocessed diet.
  • Insoluble fiber: 16% of the fiber in the ultra-processed diet was insoluble fiber versus 77% in the unprocessed diet.
  • Saturated fat: 34% of the fat in the ultra-processed diet was saturated versus 19% in the unprocessed diet.
  • Omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: The ratio was 11:1 in the ultra-processed diet versus 5:1 in the unprocessed diet.

To give you an example of what the two diets looked like, dinner one night for the unprocessed diet group consisted of beef tender roast with barley and spinach and a parfait made of fresh berries and nonfat, unflavored Greek yogurt while the ultra-processed diet group got processed turkey and cheese sandwiches (on white bread) with baked chips, canned peaches and nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt. For breakfast one morning the unprocessed diet group got omelets made from fresh eggs while the ultra-processed diet group got omelets made from Fresh Start liquid.

 

Do Ultra-Processed Foods Make You Fat?

ultra-processed foods make you fatThe results of the study were quite interesting:

  • Subjects ate an additional 508 calories per day when on the ultra-processed diet.
  • Those extra calories came from both carbohydrate and fat, not from protein.
  • Subjects gained 2 pounds in just two weeks on the ultra-processed diet and lost 2 pounds in two weeks on the unprocessed diet.
  • Subjects ate their food more quickly on the ultra-processed diet (50 calories/minute) than on the unprocessed diet (32 calories/minute).

The authors of the study asked the participants several subjective questions about the two diets to better understand why they consumed more calories on the ultra-processed diet. However, those questions did not provide any useful insights. For example, the subjects rated the two diets equally with respect to:

  • Palatability and familiarity of the foods in the diet.
  • Hunger prior to eating and both fullness and satisfaction when they were finished eating.

These findings surprised the authors. The authors had assumed their subjects would eat more ultra-processed foods because they liked them better.

With respect to the overall study results, the authors concluded: “Limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods may be an effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment.”

In short, their study confirms what many experts have long suspected, but does not provide a mechanistic explanation of why ultra-processed foods lead to overconsumption and obesity.

 

What Is The Secret For Weight Loss?

 

ultra-processed foods secretThe arguments over which diet is best for weight loss never end. Everyone claims they have the secret, and everyone quotes studies showing their diet works.

Yet the diets are as different as night and day. They shouldn’t all work, but they do. For example, weight loss is virtually identical on a very low-fat vegan diet and a very low carb keto diet. That tells us that the secret can’t be either low-fat or low carb.

The secret must be something all these diets have in common. When you ask what they have in common, the answer is simple. All the popular diets start by eliminating sodas and ultra-processed foods and replacing them with unprocessed foods.

Could it be that something as simple as eliminating sodas and ultra-processed foods and replacing them with unprocessed foods is the secret to successful weight loss? Many experts have hypothesized that ultra-processed foods were the cause of the obesity epidemic, but this is the first randomized controlled clinical trial to prove that hypothesis.

Like any individual study, this study needs to be confirmed by additional randomized controlled studies. One might hope for longer duration studies with more subjects, but it would be very difficult to duplicate the precision of this study. Asking volunteers to enter a metabolic ward where every aspect of their life is controlled for multiple weeks is both expensive and a huge commitment by the volunteers.

My recommendation is simple. You don’t have to choose radical diets that eliminate whole food groups to lose weight successfully. They are hard to follow and may not be healthy long-term. Just ditch the sodas, junk foods, and highly processed foods. Rediscover the pleasures of whole unprocessed foods. You will lose weight gradually and safely. You will be healthier.

Of course, it is not quite that simple.

  • Portion control is essential. You can eat too much unprocessed food.
  • Caloric density (calories per serving) is important. This is one reason why primarily plant-based diets are generally more successful for long-term weight control.
  • Practice mindful eating. Savor your food and eat it slowly. You will be less likely to overeat.
  • And, of course, don’t neglect the exercise component.

For a more detailed analysis of the pros and cons of popular diets, read my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

The Bottom Line

 

It seems like everyone has a magical weight loss diet. You just follow their diet and the pounds will melt away. The problem is that everyone’s recommendations are different. What is the average consumer to think? Is the best diet low fat, low carb, low sugar, Paleo, Keto, or vegan? Or is intermittent fasting the secret to successful weight loss?

What if the secret to weight loss was none of the diets mentioned above, yet was something common to all of them? The one common feature of every popular diet is they cut out sodas and processed foods and replace them with whole unprocessed foods.

For years experts have claimed that the consumption of highly processed foods is responsible for the obesity epidemic and replacing  ultra-processed foods with unprocessed foods was the secret to successful weight loss. However, those claims are based on associations, and association studies do not prove cause and effect.

Finally, the first randomized controlled trial to test this hypothesis has been published. The study showed:

  • Subjects ate an additional 508 calories per day when on the ultra-processed diet.
  • Subjects gained 2 pounds in just two weeks on the ultra-processed diet and lost 2 pounds in two weeks on the unprocessed diet.

My recommendation is simple. Just ditch the sodas, junk foods, and highly processed foods. Rediscover the pleasures of whole unprocessed foods. You will lose weight gradually and safely. You will be healthier.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. I discuss other aspects of successful weight loss in the article above.

For a more detailed analysis of the pros and cons of popular diets, read my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”

For more details 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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