Vitamins, Snake Oil, and Jenny McCarthy

Since The Atlantic – Health published my piece on Jenny McCarthy, I’ve gotten a lot of email. A lot of it has been from parents saying: I don’t like Jenny McCarthy, and I’m not sure about vaccines, but let me tell you about my child and the dramatic improvements I’ve seen as a result of dietary changes.

I believe that in many cases with special needs, changing diets can result in changes in behavior and response to other kinds of interventions. I believe that without doing blind studies, the correlation and causation is nearly impossible to tease out, and of course we can’t (ethically) really do this kind of blind study with a sufficient sample of children with disabilities. All we can do is try to collect post-intervention data and sort it.

So this morning I read Paul Offit’s piece on vitamins. The anti-vax crowd HATES Offit, calling him (I’m not linking to Age of Autism) – “millionaire vaccine industrialist.” Now let’s not get into the issue that the people selling snake oil to kids with autism are also millionaires, and yes, there are profit margins on all sides. Offit wrote, “Autism’s false prophets.” He’s deep in this fight, much more so than I.

The essay is extremely long and works through the long history of Linus Pauling, vitamin advocate (he claimed that vitamin C cured cancer at one point), and finishes with a terser discussion of lots of recent studies on vitamins. Here’s the final point:

Two days later, on October 12, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic
published the results of a study of 36,000 men who took vitamin E,
selenium, both, or
neither. They found that those receiving vitamin E had a 17 percent
greater risk of prostate cancer. In response to the study, Steven
Nissen, chairman of
cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said, “The concept of
multivitamins was sold to Americans by an eager nutraceutical industry
to generate profits. There
was never any scientific data supporting their usage.” On October
25, a headline in the Wall Street Journal asked, “Is This the End of Popping
Vitamins?” Studies haven’t hurt sales. In 2010, the vitamin industry grossed $28 billion, up 4.4 percent from the year before. “The thing to do with [these reports] is just ride them out,” said Joseph Fortunato, chief executive of General Nutrition Centers. “We see no
impact on our business.”

How could this be? Given that free radicals clearly damage
cells–and given that people who eat diets rich in substances that
neutralize free radicals are
healthier–why did studies of supplemental antioxidants show they
were harmful? The most likely explanation is that free radicals aren’t
as evil as
advertised. Although it’s clear that free radicals can damage DNA
and disrupt cell membranes, that’s not always a bad thing. People need
free radicals to
kill bacteria and eliminate new cancer cells. But when people take
large doses of antioxidants, the balance between free radical production
and destruction
might tip too much in one direction, causing an unnatural state in
which the immune system is less able to kill harmful invaders.
Researchers have called
this “the antioxidant paradox.”

Whatever the reason, the data are
clear: high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of heart
disease and
cancer; for this reason, not a single national or international
organization responsible for the public’s health recommends them.

So, according to Offit, vitamins are snake oil. There’s a shared sense in the battle over knowing, over epistemology, between this issue (so much less heated) and the autism-diet-vaccine world.

4 Replies to “Vitamins, Snake Oil, and Jenny McCarthy”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hello Perry,
    It is important to base comments base in real facts. I am 50. Two kids with health problems. See Bruce Liptom work about Epigenetics and the enviroment. Silver amalgams, genetic modified food (global control by Monsato), fluoride in the water, artificial colorants and chemicals in the food supply are the result of today's epidemic of autism and auto-immune diseases.

    1. David Perry says:

      There we go, all the conspiracy theories crammed together. I'm not deleting this one so that future posters can see this post and know they've been duly represented. I will delete all future conspiracy theory posts.

      P.S. You have it backwards. The theory is that autism/auto-immune results from …

  2. Blue-Eyed-Cat says:

    I wandered over from the Chronicle. I am an academic researcher (institutional research to be exact) with two children, one on the spectrum (ASD) and the other ADHD – alphabet soup! I understand the research and I know that vaccines don't cause autism. But there is something that goes against reason when you deal with your children. There is that feeling of "What if they got it wrong?" It clouds your judgement and makes the smartest people do stupid things, like not vaccinating their kids. My kids have all their childhood vaccines, but recently when faced with the HPV vaccine for my 14 year old son, I hesitated, and didn't allow the doctor to give it to him. What if, what if, what if….

    1. David Perry says:

      I hear you! I really do. That's why I tried to write about McCarthy from the perspective of a parent, with compassion and empathy, but also taking a firm position.

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