Saturday, December 30, 2006

Vitamins and Eating Disorders

Vitamin supplements are almost certain to prevent serious eating disorders. This is one more reason all children should be taking vitamin supplements. Treatment of eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia) may be the best illustration of how hard it is for people (not just doctors) to comprehend the benefits of vitamin supplements. I found no mention of vitamins when searching on-line at websites run by medical authorities for treatment of eating disorders. I found no specific vitamin dosage recommendations at any website discussing treatment of eating disorders.

There is a consensus across the entire health care community that vitamins are a safe and effective treatment for vitamin deficiency diseases. In my lifetime, I was not taught much in my pre-med courses about deficiency diseases, and have not come across much discussion despite extensive reading. My education left me under the impression that vitamin deficiency was rare thanks to the fortification of foods with vitamins. A recent article in the New York Times magazine on anorexia jolted me. Hundreds of thousands of girls and young women intentionally starve themselves to lose weight. This population is, by definition, vitamin deficient. I then learned, to my great consternation, that eating disorders are a well-known symptom of vitamin deficiency diseases. Thinking it through, anorexia is a frightening symptom of deficiency because it turns deficiency into a trap. Accidental or experimental depletion of vitamins requires robust and healthy eating to be cured.

I found links on-line to excellent descriptions of the major deficiency diseases – scurvy, pellagra, and beriberi. Interestingly, there was no discussion in these summaries of how eating disorder symptoms respond to deficiency disease treatment. The treatments for scurvy, pellagra, and beriberi are large doses vitamins. The recommended doses cannot be obtained from eating ordinary foods. This suggests that vitamin deficiency diseases are difficult to treat without supplements.

So, although there is a consensus that high doses of vitamins are needed to treat vitamin deficiency, apparently there is not a consensus that self-starved young women are vitamin deficient. Can someone explain this to me? This is beyond doctors. This is about all educated adults. Why don’t parents feed their children vitamin supplements? Every educated adult can read for himself or herself that eating disorders are caused by vitamin deficiency. Every educated adult must understand that a self-starved young woman is in need of vitamin supplements. Since, as a society, we can not agree that overt vitamin deficiency caused by self-starvation should be treated with high potency vitamin supplements, we are a very long way from using vitamins supplements to optimize the growth and development of children, to optimize adult immunity and healing, and to delay aging. Much progress has been made since Linus Pauling wrote “How to Live Longer and Feel Better”, but much remains to be discouraged about.
Eating disorders look to me like a great place to focus the discussion between vitamin advocates and vitamin skeptics. I know what the skeptics will say. They will say that there is no proof (double-blind, placebo controlled trials), and will point to individuals with eating disorders who are now taking vitamins and still struggling with their disease. They will point out that vitamins do not cure eating disorders quickly, and they will point out that stopping vitamins does not necessarily cause a relapse. They will point to side effects from the vitamin treatment. All these statements are truthful, and all are blind to the well-established science surrounding vitamins and vitamin deficiency diseases. With the science in complete support of supplements, it should be possible to add the use of vitamins supplements to treat eating disorders to the small but growing list of treatments accepted by main stream medicine.


At 12:40 PM, Blogger Rusty Hoge said...


Your discussion is quite thought-provoking. You are obviously right (maybe too obvious to see) that people with eating disorders are very deficient in the nutrients they need for good health. Their weight problems are only the most obvious symptom. Any treatment for these disorders should include extensive vitamin supplementation.

What is most interesting about your post is your suggestion that these disorders may have a cause or cure with vitamin supplementation. Most of us think that the root of these conditions is psychological. That the eating problem is a manifestation of some wrong-headed thinking (not to sound like I am making light of this). To what extent would optimum nutrient levels change this situation?

At 8:35 PM, Blogger Steve said...


Thanks for your comment. I am saddened by my conviction that vitamin supplementation can prevent eating disorders. I believe optimal nutrition in childhood goes a long way towards improving children's mental health. Children with excellent mental health, by definition, do not suffer from eating disorders.

Optimal nutrition will not prevent every case of eating disorder. In these cases, however, optimal nutrition will often enable a complete cure. I believe that maintaining super micronutrient status via supplements while starving from calories is likely to do far less damage. In other words, I believe most of the damage from eating disorders is due to micronutrient depletion and only a small fraction is due to calorie depletion.

I trust you understood my point about eating disorders being a trap. Eating disorders are, I believe, initiated by poor mental health. Starvation depletes micronutrients. Depleted micronutrients lead to a rapid deterioration of the already poor mental health condition. Escape from this state of extemely poor mental health becomes a longshot.

At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice artile & discussion rusty & steve, thanks for the info.

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there

What vitamins would you recommend for a breastfeeding mother who is prone to mastitis?

At 7:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Over at there's a lot on niacin and mental health. Dr. Hoffer's work. Might help in anorexia as well.


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