Every morning, I take a One-a-Day women's multivitamin. The label advertises how the pill is "formulated to support" everything from bone strength to heart health. Taking the pill always makes me feel proactive about my health. I never doubted the common view that "vitamins are good for you."
In Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, Paul A. Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, delivers an epic critique of vitamins, the supplement industry, and our vulnerability to quackery.
First, he notes the Food and Drug Administration does not guarantee the quality or dosage of vitamins and supplements.
Sure enough, when I looked closely at my One-a-Day bottle, a scripted sentence stood out: "This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."
Though in plain sight, I had never bothered to read this. Offit assures me I'm not alone. In 2012, more than half the U.S. population took some kind of vitamin despite the fact there's no proof they improve health. Indeed, Offit cites strong evidence showing that high doses of some vitamins are linked to higher rates of cancer and heart disease. (Two major studies last week found multivitamins failed to protect aging men's brains or help heart attack survivors. An editorial urged consumers to "stop wasting money.")
In this easy-to-read and meticulous book, Offit goes after personalities such as Suzanne Somers, Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Oz for extolling unproven care.
Offit tells how laetrile, an alleged cancer cure from apricot pits, failed actor Steve McQueen and Joey Hofbauer, 7, who likely would be alive today if he had had conventional cancer care.
Offit dwells on the work of Nobel-winning chemist Linus Pauling, whose 1970 book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, declared that a daily 3,000-milligram dose was the cure. Pauling went on to assert that large, daily doses of vitamins could cure ailments from heart disease to AIDS.
Many Americans still believe vitamin C helps fight the common cold, even though evidence shows no such effect.
False pitches have helped make supplements a $34 billion industry. Many hospitals and doctors play along, although Offit's hospital recently became the first to discourage patients from taking most supplements.
He delves into why alternative therapies are so seductive. "Modern medicine can appear callous and insensitive," he writes, while alternative healers make patients feel empowered.
But Offit adds: "All therapies should be held to the same high standard of proof; otherwise we'll continue to be hoodwinked by healers who ask us to believe in them rather than in the science that fails to support their claims."
Many brilliant folks, such as Apple's Steve Jobs, have fallen for unproven remedies.
Offit argues there should be no such thing as "alternative medicine." If a drug works, it's good care. If it doesn't, it shouldn't be used.
Too many "alternative" compounds fail to meet the "evidence-based" standard of modern medicine. That's why all who care about their health should read this book.