The Vitamin Rage

Thomas L. Petty, M.D.

Professor of Medicine, 
University of Colorado

Chairman, National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP)


National Lung Health Education Program
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The Vitamin Rage

June 1994
PEP Pioneers
Second Wind
Torrance, California

Dear Friends,

You can hardly pick up a newspaper, magazine, listen to the radio, or watch TV without hearing a lot about vitamins. More and more claims are being made about the effects of vitamins on our health. This is particularly true in the areas of cancer prevention and the prevention of heart attack, stroke, and even claims of longevity. Right now, the so-called anti-oxidants, i.e., vitamins A, C, and E, are getting the biggest play.

Should you take vitamins? Of course, the answer to this question is "Ask your doctor." My own belief is that the minimum daily requirements as specified years ago for young healthy people and approved by the Food and Drug Administration are not sufficient for older patients and particularly those suffering from the stress of disease. Often my patients ask me if I take vitamins and I have to be honest and say "yes". They have figured out that it is better to ask the doctor whether he or she themselves take vitamins rather than ask for personal advice about vitamin supplementation!

There is no doubt that the aging process is related to what is called oxidative metabolism. Can anti-oxidant vitamins slow down this process? Can the major diseases cited and others such as cataract be slowed by mega vitamin therapy? The answers to these questions are not known. The best studies come from careful reviews of dietary history in relation to good health or lack of it. It almost always turns out that a diet high in fruits, leafy vegetables, and fiber is associated with better health than diets low in these anti-oxidant containing foods. Diets high in fat and cholesterol are particularly associated with both premature heart attack, stroke, and certain cancers.

Whether or not mega vitamins available in drug stores, are better, the same, or not as good as the vitamins contained in food is not known. The FDA has taken the position that they will not take these vitamins off the market, no matter how controversial the issues are, but rather they will limit the claims that the manufacturers can make until such time that adequately controlled studies answer important questions about vitamins in the prevention of disease.

One of the reasons that I have been taking vitamins for the past two years is they made me feel better after my heart surgery. I might have felt better anyway but now that I feel so well, I am naturally reluctant to discontinue these self-prescribed vitamins. My doctors don't object, so why not? In the final analysis, the patient, i.e., you or I, are the only ones who know how we feel.

Have a happy springtime! I'll be in touch next month.

     Sincerely yours,

     Thomas Petty, MD

Last update:
14 Oct 2002