Is Vitamin E Deficiency Common in the US

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Nutritiion, Supplements and Health, Vitamins and Health

 Does Vitamin E Matter?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

are Americans vitamin E deficientA headline claiming “Over 90% of Twentysomethings Have Suboptimal Vitamin E Status” caught my eye the other day, so I decided to investigate further. If you have been following all of the information and misinformation about vitamin E in the online media, you are probably confused – and this headline just adds to the confusion. There are probably three basic questions you want answered:

  • Is the latest study valid? Are most Americans vitamin E deficient?
  • Does it matter? Vitamin E has been described as “a vitamin in search of a disease”. If there are no diseases associated with vitamin E deficiency, should we even be concerned if most Americans are vitamin E deficient?
  • Is there any value to vitamin E supplementation? You will see claims that vitamin E supplementation has been proven not to work. Are these claims valid?

Let me guide you through the maze. I will start by analyzing the study behind the current headlines.

Are Americans Vitamin E Deficient?

is vitamin e deficiency common in the usThe best food sources of vitamin E are nuts, seeds and unrefined vegetable oils, followed by green leafy vegetables. Since these foods are not abundant in the American diet, it is no surprise that previous studies have shown that 83% of US children and 91% of US adults do not consume the recommended 12 mg/day of vitamin E. Consequently, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee identified vitamin E as a “shortfall nutrient”.

This study (McBurney et al, PLoS One 10(8): e0135510 doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135510) took the next logical step by asking whether the inadequate intake of vitamin E lead to inadequate blood levels of the vitamin. The authors analyzed data from 7,922 participants who had their blood levels of alpha-tocopherol (the most abundant form of vitamin E) determined in the 2003-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

They subdivided participants into those who used no supplements (4049) and those who used supplements (3873). (Note: The supplement users were not necessarily using vitamin E supplements, but many were using a multivitamin supplement containing vitamin E). The authors compared the study participant’s blood levels of vitamin E with the Institute of Medicine standard for vitamin E deficiency (12 umol/L) and with a standard they set for adequate vitamin E levels (30 umol/L). Here are the results of their analysis:

  • People who did not use supplements had lower blood levels of vitamin E (24.9 umol/L) than those who used supplements (33.7 umol/L). No surprise here.
  • Only 0.6% of Americans were clinically deficient in vitamin E (blood levels < 12 umol/L). The prevalence of vitamin E deficiency did not vary significantly with age, gender or ethnicity.
  • When they looked at the people not using supplements, the percentage with suboptimal vitamin E status (blood levels < 30 umol/L) varied significantly by age, but was not significantly affected by gender or ethnicity. In this analysis the percentage with suboptimal vitamin E status was:
  • 7% for ages 20-30.
  • 8% for ages 31-50
  • 2 % for ages 51 and above

Were The Headlines Correct?

newspaper heallinesTechnically speaking the headlines were correct. 92.7% of Americans aged 20-30 who used no supplements had suboptimal blood levels of vitamin E as defined in this study. When you combined both supplement users and non-users, the percentage with suboptimal blood levels of vitamin E was only slightly less (87.4%). However, there are a couple of important caveats:

  • There is no internationally recognized standard for adequate blood levels of vitamin E. The authors had a reasonable rationale for choosing 30 umol/L as their standard for adequate blood levels, but they also acknowledged that the Estimated Average Requirement of vitamin E from food (12 mg/day) would result in a blood level of 27.9 umol/L, so their standard may be a bit high.
  • The average blood level of vitamin E for non-supplement users was 24.9 umol/L. While that is less than adequate, it is only slightly low – especially if the lower standard of 27.9 umol/L is used.

I think it would be more accurate to say that a large percentage of Americans have blood levels of vitamin E that are slightly below what is considered adequate but are far above what could be considered clinically deficient. The question then becomes “Does it matter?”

Does Vitamin E Matter?

Let me start with a little perspective. In the United States diseases like scurvy, pellagra and beriberi are things of the past. We simply don’t see deficiency diseases anymore. What we do see are intakes of essential nutrients that are slightly below optimal. Vitamin E is no different.

If we focus on suboptimal nutrient intake by itself, the answer would probably be that it doesn’t matter. Suboptimal nutrition is seldom enough to cause poor health by itself.

However, we also need to take into account individual differences that affect the need for essential nutrients. Poor health is much more likely to arise when suboptimal intake of one or more essential nutrients is coupled with increased needs due to genetic predisposition, risk factors that predispose to disease, and/or pre-existing disease.

With this perspective in mind, we are ready to ask whether suboptimal intake of vitamin E or any other essential nutrient matters. The answer is pretty simple. It doesn’t matter for everyone, but it matters very much for those individuals with increased needs.

If we had a good way of assessing individual nutritional needs, it would be easy to say who needed supplements and who didn’t. The problem is that we currently have no good way of assessing individual needs for essential nutrients. We simply cannot predict who will and who won’t be affected by suboptimal nutrient intake. That is why millions of Americans take supplements on a daily basis.

Is There Any Value To Vitamin E Supplementation?

vitamin e supplementationThat brings us to the final question. Is vitamin E supplementation a waste of money? You’ve probably already heard that most studies have failed to show any benefit from vitamin E supplementation, but you may be asking “How can that be when we also know that most Americans are getting suboptimal levels of vitamin E in their diet?”

With the perspective I described above in mind, the answer is pretty simple. Those studies have been asking the wrong question. They have been asking whether vitamin E supplements benefit everyone. They haven’t asked whether vitamin E supplements benefit people with increased needs.

When you ask that question the answer is very different. Let me give you three examples – one representing each of the kinds of increased need I described above:

  • In the Women’s Health Study (JAMA, 294: 56-65, 2005) vitamin E supplementation had no effect on heart attack or stroke in the general population. But when they looked at women over 65 (those at highest risk for heart disease), vitamin E supplementation reduced heart attack and stroke by 25% and cardiovascular deaths by 49%
  • In the Heart Outcome Prevention Evaluation Study (Diabetes Care, 27: 2767, 2004; Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis & Vascular Biology, 24: 136, 2008) vitamin E supplementation had no effect overall on heart attacks or cardiovascular deaths. But when they looked at a population who had a haptoglobin genotype that significantly increases the risk of heart disease, vitamin E supplementation significantly decreased the risk of both heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths.

 

The Bottom Line

  • Recent headlines saying that over 90% of young Americans have suboptimal vitamin E status are technically correct, but a bit overstated. It probably would have been more accurate to say that most Americans have slightly suboptimal vitamin E status.
  • The important question then becomes “Do marginal nutritional deficiencies matter?” The answer is pretty simple. Marginal nutritional deficiencies do not matter for everyone. However, they matter very much for those people who have increased needs for that nutrient due to genetic predisposition, risk factors for disease or pre-existing disease.
  • If we had a good way of assessing individual nutritional needs, it would be easy to say who needed supplements and who didn’t. However, we don’t have a good way of assessing increased needs for most nutrients, which is why many Americans use supplements on a daily basis.
  • As for all of those studies saying that vitamin E supplementation has no benefit, they are a bit misleading because they are asking the wrong question. They are asking whether vitamin E supplementation benefits everyone. They are not asking whether vitamin E supplementation benefits people with increased needs. When you ask that question the answer is very different (see examples in 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)

  • Joe Adami

    |

    I have seen studies that say Vit E is detrimental to good health, but these appear to concentrate on alpha E, rather than gamma e. Should more emphasis be put on what type of E people take?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Joe,

      Most of the studies suggesting vitamin E are detrimental to health are poorly designed. I have covered that in detail in my eBook, “The Myths of the Naysayers”. However, I do recommend that one use vitamin E supplements in which all of the naturally occurring tocopherols and tocotrienols are present along with added selenium.

      Dr. Chaney

      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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