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

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

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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