Andrew Weil's Vitamin Advisor

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Dr. Andrew Weil's "Vitamin Advisor" uses a questionnaire to recommend what vitamins you should take. An early version, which was used for about three years beginning in the late 1990s, was claimed to provide "a personalized formula of my recommended vitamins, supplements and tonics." To access this magic formula, you selected answers from multiple-choice questions about your age and gender; whether you live in a big city; whether you smoke or drink; whether you think you are at risk for heart disease and cancer; whether you travel frequently; and (for women) whether you are contemplating pregnancy.

There were eight questions for men and nine for women. The number of choice per question ranged from two to seven, yielding 4,032 possible combinations for men and 8,064 for women. Along the way, Weil admonished the reader not to smoke cigarettes or abuse alcohol, and to do a few other things that are standard advice for a healthy lifestyle.

No question asked what you eat. Weil apparently thought he could advise what supplements to take without knowing anything about the nutrient content of people's diet.

During part of 1997 and 1998, when TIME, Inc., owned Weil's Web site, his recommendations page was linked to the Web site of The Vitamin Shoppe, which operates a discount mail-order business and many retail stores. Advertising Age reported that the ad rights involved a seven-figure amount for a one-year exclusive contract that began April 1st. Later, the link was removed from the answer page but remained elsewhere on the site.

I took the test about 30 times to find out whether completing it always led to vitamin recommendations. Entering answers for someone young and at lowest risk for each category yielded five recommendations for men and six for women, but people who "travel frequently" were advised to take four additional products. Everyone was advised to take at least 500 mg of vitamin C and 400 International Units of vitamin E, even though there is no scientific evidence that everyone should do this. Older individuals had additional recommendations. Many women were advised to take the herb "dong quai," which, according to Weil, was good for "disorders of the female reproductive system, especially for irregular or difficult menstruation" and "tones the uterus and balances female hormonal chemistry." His questionnaire, however, didn't bother to ask whether test-taker had any "female disorders" or even had a uterus. Nor did he mention that dong quai contains cancer-causing substances and has not been proven safe or effective for any purpose.

A few weeks after I posted an analysis of his questionnaire to the Health Scout Web site, I found that Weil's questionnaire had been removed. I don't know whether the removal was related to my criticism. It was later revised and posted to a different Web site. In 2006, staff members from the Center for Science in the Public Interest tested the revised version and reported that "no matter how we tried, we couldn't get the Advisor to stop recommending that we buy supplements galore." [1]

In 2012, in a blog that severely criticized Weil, Harriet Hall, M.D. reported that the Vitamin Advisor had advised her healthy 27-year-old daughter to take a daily multivitamin, a daily antioxidant, a calcium/magnesium pill, evening primrose oil, milk thistle, omega 3, and 1000mg vitamin C, none of which she needed. The total cost would have been $99.90 per month [2].

In proper proper professional hands, well-designed questionnaires that include a detailed dietary history can identify areas of overall diet that could use improvement. However, no questionnaire can be customized to make appropriate supplement recommendations because the first step in fixing dietary inadequacies should be dietary improvement. Moreover, the recommended products invariably cost more than similar ones in retail outlets and include unnecessary ingredients

The best way to fix an inadequate diet is to eat more sensibly. If your diet is missing any nutrients, it may also lack components (such as fiber) that will not be supplied by pills. If you think your diet may be deficient, analyze it by recording what you eat for several days and comparing the number of portions of food in the various food groups with those recommended in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guidance System. For professional advice, ask a registered dietitian (R.D.) or physician to help you. If you have a shortfall, try to correct it by adjusting your diet. If this is impossible, and you conclude that you need to supplement, you should not have to spend more than a few dollars per month [3].

The DrWeil.com Web site appears to be owned and operated by Phoenix-based Weil Lifestyle, LLC which Weil founded (as Polaris Health LLC) in 2001. Since 2003, the the orders have been fulfilled under agreements with Drugstore.com Inc. Bloomberg Business Week describes Weil Lifestyle this way:

Provides a resource for education, information, products, services, and philanthropic contributions based on the principles of integrative medicine. It licenses vitamins and supplements, skin-care products, pet food, teas, virgin olive oil and tomatoes, organic cereals and nutrition bars, and baby feeding systems. The company also provides online consumers services that offers vitamin and nutritional supplement recommendations; online information sources for process of growing older; interactive online programs for individuals; and markets, develops, and distributes a subscription online service that provides Internet publishing services to consumers. Weil Lifestyle, LLC was formerly known as Polaris Health LLC and changed its name in April 2004 [4].

Notice of Error

Weil founded and cotnributes money to the Weil Foundation for Integrative Medicine, a nonprofit organization based in Arizona. On August 11, 2012, I mistakenly criticzed Weil based on information in tax returns from the Weil Foundation of Fairfax, Virginia, an unrelated organization.In response to notifcation from a reader, I have removed my critical comments and regret the error.

Additional Information about Weil

References

  1. Supplementing their income. Nutrition Action Healthletter, Jan/Feb 2006.
  2. Hall HA. Andrew Weil/AAFP article rejected by Slate. Science-Based Medicine Blog, Oct 30, 2012.
  3. Barrett S. Dietary supplements: Appropriate use. Quackwatch Web site, Nov 12, 2010.
  4. Company overview of Weil Lifestyle, LLC. Bloomberg Business Week Web site, accessed Aug 10, 2012.

This article was revised on October 30, 2012.