The medical community is still debating the possible benefits.
When vitamins were first studied a century ago, it seemed like a wonderful solution for nutritional deficiencies. Scurvy, rickets and other diseases that arose from a lack of certain vitamins (in these cases, vitamins C and D respectively) could now be more easily prevented. This eventually gave rise to the idea of a daily multivitamin that could fill in nutritional gaps, and maybe even provide additional health benefits like preventing heart disease and cancer. But now with improvements to the modern diet, recent research doesn’t quite back up the need for a multivitamin.
Research says no clear benefit
Although results have been mixed, a series of studies that included a review of research for the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force found no clear benefit in taking vitamins for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, cognitive health or cancer.
The current edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans stresses that nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods. Eating healthy whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and fish can usually provide all the necessary nutrients without the use of a multivitamin. Plus, eating whole foods gives you a total package of nutrients, containing fiber and other natural substances that help your body absorb what it needs.
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Ironically, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements notes that people who take multivitamins tend to consume more vitamins and minerals from food than those who don’t — probably because they’re more concerned about their health to begin with.
Can they do harm?
Even if there’s no benefit, taking one can’t hurt, right? In most cases, that’s probably true for multivitamins, according to the NIH. The only damage may be to your wallet — and your money is better spent on whole foods. But megadoses, especially of fat-soluble vitamins that don’t get flushed out in urine like A, K and E, could harm your health, so avoid individual supplements unless your doctor approves them.
Some people may benefit
There may be some exceptions to the no-vitamin rule, though: Women of childbearing age (even those who aren’t planning on becoming pregnant, because half of all pregnancies are unintended) should take 400 mcg of folic acid daily to help prevent neural tube defects, which develop in the earliest stages of pregnancy. Postmenopausal women may benefit from a calcium supplement to protect their bones.
Those on special diets, like vegetarians or vegans, may also benefit from a multivitamin. In addition, many people, especially those who spend most of their time indoors, may have a vitamin D deficiency. Talk to your doctor, though, before you start taking a vitamin D supplement, as you may need to be tested for the deficiency first.
“Since we do not have strong evidence supporting the use of multivitamins, and they may in fact be harmful, I like to work closely with my patients to ensure that their diets are providing optimum nutrition,” says Jennifer Rose Boozer, DO, clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and family medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC – Glendale and Pasadena. “In certain cases we do need to supplement individual vitamins or minerals that may be missing. An annual preventative exam is a great opportunity to discuss this.”
The bottom line? Most healthy people who eat a good diet probably don’t need a multivitamin. Before taking any supplement, even a multivitamin, talk to your doctor, especially if you are on other medications or have any health conditions. Too much of some vitamins may interact with your medications or cause your condition to worsen. Your doctor can discuss your specific situation to see if there’s any benefit — or harm — for you in taking a multivitamin.
By Tina Donvito
Make an appointment with one of our physicians at Keck Medicine at USC to discuss your multivitamin use. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.