February 24, 1925

Why I Don't Take Vitamins

Probably no single class of drugs has been the target of as much quackery, misunderstanding, misrepresentation and misuse as the vitamins, despite the fact that far more is known about these compounds, including their mechanism of action, than any other group of substances in the U.S. Pharmacopeia.

Paul Greengard, 1965

I not only don't take vitamin pills, I won't buy "Total" breakfast cereal because it essentially has a vitamin pill incorporated in the cereal. It's not that I have anything against vitamins; I need them to live, and if I were ill and needed more than I am now getting in my food, I wouldn't hesitate to take them. But I am a 70 year old man in good health for my age and I eat a well balanced diet that should provide all of the vitamins that I need to stay healthy. I eat whole grain breads, cereal and crackers. I have an orange or a glass of orange juice for breakfast, and have fruit with every meal. For dinner, I have a large salad as well as a small serving of meat, fish or poultry. I have a glass of skim milk with my breakfast cereal, and have vegetables with dinner. I not only eat well, I enjoy eating. Since I get all of the nutrients, including vitamins, that I need, why would I want more?

Some people think that if a little bit of vitamins are good for you, more should be better. Everything that I have read says that, if a person is healthy, that isn't so. If I take more vitamins, they would just be excreted. It has been said that Americans have the most expensive urine in the world.

When Linus Pauling's book on vitamin C was published, I read it. It was a mass of pure speculation, with little or no evidence for his contention that large doses of vitamin C were good for you. I know that Pauling won two Nobel prizes, but if someone submitted that book of his as a doctoral thesis, he never would have gotten his Ph.D. One problem with Pauling is that he has been right often enough that he figured that he didn't have to prove anything, just theorize. In my scientist days, I used to originate and discard a new theory every month. Most were just plain wrong. It takes much more than a brilliant theory to advance the frontiers of science -it takes hard evidence. Pauling was out of his field with vitamin C. He was trained as a chemist, and there is a big difference between chemistry and experimental medicine. Molecules don't lie and people do. Every decent experiment that has ever been done with vitamin C and the common cold has demonstrated that if your vitamin C intake is adequate (between 100 and 200mg. per day), larger doses of the stuff makes no difference whatever. When I say a "decent" experiment, I mean a double-blind experiment, where neither the patient or the doctor knows which the patient is getting the vitamin and which is given the control sugar pill.

My rational for not taking more vitamin C than I need, has to do with an unproven theory of mine that postulates that large doses of a vitamin could disable that marvelous mechanism that allows the body to extract vitamins that are present in food in infinitesimal quantities. I have no hard evidence for this, but that theory seems to me to be more plausible than the one that says that more vitamins are better.

Lastly, as a matter off principle, I only take pills when I am sick, not when I am healthy.

Next column

Return to the Medicine and Health Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page