It seems taking vitamins is something a lot of Americans do and have been doing since childhood. In fact, about 39% of the general population takes a multivitamin according to data from 2003-2006, which was up from 30% of the population in 1980-1994.
Is there any benefit to taking a multivitamin? Most clinical trials don’t show a benefit to taking a multivitamin, and in some instances taking a high dose of some vitamins might actually be harmful.
Most multi-vitamins contain levels of vitamins and minerals around 100% of the RDA. This level is considered safe to take for most people. Taking a multivitamin has been considered like a way to cover your bases if you don’t get your micronutrient intake through food.
However, research studies have not shown a benefit from taking a multivitamin. So, should you even take a multivitamin? Health professionals are somewhat split with this advice, so it may be a personal choice.
Clinical studies about Multivitamins
In 2013, the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine published three studies looking at the impact of taking a multivitamin. It turns out all studies found taking a multivitamin did not have a significant impact of research subjects health.
One study was a review article looking at 26 studies with multivitamins and cancer, heart disease risk and overall mortality. After looking at all of these studies, researchers concluded taking a multivitamin did not impact risk of cancer, heart disease or all-cause mortality in adults without nutritional deficiencies. Researchers concluded, “The results of vitamin supplementation trials have been disappointing at best”.
Another study found that taking a multivitamin did not significantly reduce risk for a second heart attack in subjects who already had a heart attack. The third study looked at multivitamins impacting risk for cognitive decline in about 6,000 men over the age of 65 years. The study concluded that supplementation did not improve cognitive function.
The editors for Annals of Internal Medicine released an editorial in December 2013 suggesting taking a multivitamin does not prevent chronic disease, their use is not justified and taking them should be avoided.
Nutrition insurance policy?
If research studies have not shown a clear benefit from taking a multivitamin, why do people still take them and why do some health professionals still recommend them?
Some scientists still suggest taking a multivitamin can be like a nutritional insurance policy and can help fill in the gaps from things missing in the diet.
The Nutrition Source from Harvard School of Public Health suggests taking a multivitamin usually outweighs any risks for most healthy people and suggests avoiding taking mega doses of vitamins.
The concern with mega doses of vitamins is that you can get too much of some vitamins and minerals. Some research studies have also shown taking large doses of vitamin E or supplemental antioxidants like beta carotene may be more harmful than beneficial.
Individual health status
Studies with multivitamins are usually based in generally healthy populations. If someone has a disease or altered state of health, that can impact appropriateness of taking a multivitamin and consulting a medical professional may be advised before taking a multivitamin.
If someone has a nutrition deficiency, taking a mega dose of a nutrient or a multivitamin can also be important and may be recommended by a doctor. Pregnant women can benefit from taking a prenatal vitamin, as getting sufficient folate levels can help lower risk for birth defects.
Is taking multivitamins harmful?
While most studies have not shown a clear benefit from taking multivitamins, it appears taking a multivitamin is probably safe for most people and may cause no harm. What could potentially be harmful, especially for children, is over-fortification from a multivitamin, other supplements and eating a lot of fortified foods with added vitamins and minerals like cereals, nutritional bars or vitamin waters.
If you view taking a multivitamin as a way to “get you off the hook” for eating a healthy diet, than taking a multivitamin could also be considered harmful if it makes you think you don’t need to eat healthy.
While some view a multivitamin as a nutritional insurance policy, it is still best to try to get as many natural nutrients from your food. There are things within our food that a supplement cannot capture, and absorbing nutrients from food can be different than from a pill.
Conclusion: should you take a multivitamin?
Taking a multivitamin or any other supplement is a personal choice. Research studies do not at this time back up claims that taking a multi can lower your risk for chronic diseases or even increase overall mortality.
Some health professionals suggest taking a multivitamin is a waste and should not be done. Some health professionals still advocate taking one probably is not harmful and may help fill in nutritional gaps from the diet.
In general, the healthy population can stick with a multivitamin that provides around 100% of the Recommended Daily Value of nutrients. Avoid mega doses of vitamins or minerals unless guided for a specific health condition.
References used in this article