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That anti-vitamin report? Don't believe it

Q: For many years I've benefited from taking vitamins, especially antioxidants. Recently I read a report in the media claiming that they may not be good for my health. I know it sounds ridiculous, but could there possibly be any truth to such a claim?

If it sounds ridiculous, it probably is. You can rest assured that taking your vitamins is a good idea. A wealth of scientific evidence, developed over decades and published in numerous reputable medical journals, clearly supports the use of antioxidants - including vitamins C, E, beta-carotene, and selenium - to help reduce risks of chronic disease. Millions of people like you have experienced their benefits.

The report you mention was based on a review by the Cochrane group, which claimed that vitamins are useless or even harmful. The information presented was not essentially new; it was derived from old information that, when first reported, was much-criticized by scientists for drawing flawed conclusions. As leading nutritionist Alan Gaby, MD, pointed out, it presented "data that has already been discredited."

There were so many questionable aspects of the Cochrane review that it would require volumes to elucidate them all. It purported to be a "meta-analysis," but included only a tiny fraction of available evidence, excluding several hundred studies. This opened a Pandora's Box of potential subjective elements and built-in bias, undermining claims to objectivity. The reasons for excluding so much information seemed obscure and, as Dr. Gaby noted, "don't make scientific sense." The review included disproportionate numbers of critically ill patients - hundreds of studies were omitted for failing to show mortality - yet attempted to apply its conclusions about mortality to healthy people! Ignoring criteria scientists consider crucial, it examined only synthetic forms of vitamins - and thus has no relevance to natural sources of vitamins and antioxidants in many potent supplements. The review's methods of statistical analysis were also denounced for being narrow-minded and inappropriate for studying antioxidants; Dr. Meir Stampfer of Harvard deemed it "not fruitful from a scientific or medical perspective."

Anyone telling you to stop taking vitamins on the basis of such dubious information is foolishly leaping to conclusions. The many benefits of vitamins and antioxidants have prompted a backlash from certain quarters; there are those with vested interests in "proving" that vitamins aren't beneficial - and even using scare tactics (claims that vitamins shorten life). No doubt you will read more ridiculous claims in the future.

Of course, there's no magic bullet; your vitamins and antioxidants can't replace other healthy lifestyle choices. But you can trust the wisdom of time-proven principles. Like your parents used to tell you: eat your vegetables, keep taking your vitamins, exercise, and don't believe everything you read.

Dr. Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu, as well as author of the new book Natural Choices for Women's Health, published by Random House. You can reach her and read her past columns at www.DrSteelsmith.com. This column is for information only. Consult your health provider for medical advice.

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