It all started with a recent article that appeared on October 1, 2012 in The Wall Street Journal titled "Questioning the Superpowers of Omega-3 in Diet," to which after reading I submitted the following comment online:
"According to Consumer Reports' September 2012 issue, there are over 55,000 dietary supplements for sale in the U.S. That's 55,000 products sold by commercial interests trying to convince Americans that we can't live without them. There's hardly anyone on the other side shedding light on their value to overall health. In fact, there is not a single study ever published that shows that a supplement in the absence of deficiency extended a single day of human life.
Furthermore, there were no such products for the first 150,000 years of our history until about the 1930s. (Yes, some plants were discovered early to have medicinal purposes but they were often used in their natural state without factory processing.) Yet Michelangelo lived to 87 and the Greek philosophers into their 90s. The Sardinians' trace their extended longevity to the Bronze Age.
However, virtually every day now a new study comes out that questions the usefulness of taking one of the many popular supplements like Fish Oil, Vitamin D, Ginkgo, etc. Each time people leap to the opportunity to defend or criticize the validity of the studies. The nature of such studies that look at isolated variables offer plenty of room for debate. This means they completely ignore the synergism among hundreds of other nutrients found in different foods.
What is not debatable is that most (some exceptions best determined with the help of a knowledgeable physician) people would be better off eating whole foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and wild fish (this is obviously debated by Vegans, but it's hard to argue with the health benefits of wild Salmon, a non-predatory fish, low in contaminants like mercury and PCBs, but high in Vitamin D, DPH, EPA, and an excellent source of amino acids.) Aspects of such a diet has been the staple of multiple cultures around the world for thousands of years that count among them the highest percentage of centenarians.
The bottom line is that people should not take any supplements in the absence of a known deficiency, which should only be determined by proper testing with the input of a knowledgeable physician or registered dietitian, and should stick with non-processed foods to the extent possible and stop looking for salvation in the form of a pill.
Finally, I say Caveat Lector, "Let the reader beware." Don't take medical advice from the mass media. As Mark Twain once said, "Don't take advice from a health book. You could die from a misprint." This equally applies to health websites, newsletters, magazines, and TV shows.
They don't know YOU (your medical and social history, medications, diet, stress, etc.) and the advice may not apply. Find a physician willing to invest the time to know you well and who has spent time to acquire (usually not taught in medical school) knowledge of nutrition so he or she can guide you appropriately."
In response to my submission, a gentleman by the name of Bill Sardi posted this response.
"Of course, studies show ~40% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, ~40% are short on vitamin B12, most Americans have low levels of vitamin D at some time of the year, few Americans achieve optimal levels of vitamin C, a large portion of Americans are deficient in vitamin B1 due to poor absorption caused by drugs (diuretics, digitalis), coffee, tea, alcohol or refined sugar. Nearly all smokers are vitamin C deficient. Many older Americans are zinc deficient. Growing kids and pregnant and lactating mothers have nutritional needs that are not commonly met by the best diet. Stress, medications, and lack of stomach acid induce essential nutrient deficiencies. And yes, too many Americans have undetectable levels of omega-3 oils in tissues. So much for the idea of skipping supplements. --Bill Sardi, Knowledge of Health, Inc."
To which I responded:
"It's wonderful that you can rattle off a number of statistics to prove your point. However, I must challenge their accuracy. In the most recent 2012 CDC study of American's nutritional state, none of the numbers you cite proved to be accurate. Can you provide a valid source for your reference?
I'm not sure what your agenda is to push supplements, but as a doctor who regularly checks for vitamin deficiencies, I believe you to be misguided. When relying on studies, it is important to subject such studies to close scrutiny to determine their validity and applicability. I find that most dietary supplement studies that claim proof of usefulness fail these two tests.
For example, a recent study showed that Vitamin D decreased cold symptoms. However, the Vitamin D was given to people with extreme levels of deficiency. The study did not show efficacy in inadequate to normal levels of Vitamin D.
No one would disagree that someone with very levels of Vitamin D would benefit from correction. But before I would prescribe a pill, I would suggest increased sun exposure, albeit in small doses (about 15-30 minutes during the late day) and without exposure to the face, and ingestion of wild salmon and Almond milk, both rich in the vitamin.
The bottom line is no one should take a single supplement without consulting his or her physician. It's often been said that a doctor that threats him or herself has a fool for a patient. I say that someone that treats him or herself has a fool for a doctor.
Please let's leave medical decision-making to trained and licensed professionals. Of course, patients should always ask questions and challenge assertions if they see fit."
After writing my response, I became curious as to who exactly is this Bill Sardi. So, I found his email address and wrote him the following email.
Update as of March 21, 2013
Bill Sardi or someone working on his behalf sent me two copies of his book, The New Turth About Vitamins & Minerals. On the cover of the book, he displays Purity's Perfect Multi, the multivitamin he sells. The entire book is dedicated to persuading the reader that if you want a quality multivitamin, only he sells it. In fact, in the back of the book, Sardi includes a survey of multivitamins where he grades the major brands out of 100 points. Not surprisingly, his product gets a 96, with the next closest product is graded 68 out of 100, with the numbers dropping fast from there.
Out of curiosity, I started reading the book, but had to stop when I realized that although he occasionally quoted some reasonable studies, many were studies done in animals, which hold little relevance to humans. The book was the most self-serving book I have ever tried to read. After a few pages of copious notes, I had enough.
Again I caution, beware of people telling you how great are the supplements they are trying to sell you.