We'd all like good health to be easy. It would be so much better if, instead of exercising and eating fresh fruits and veggies in abundance, we could just pop a pill (or several) and be done with it.
That impulse has likely fueled the phenomenal growth of the $28 billion vitamin and supplement industry. Now, a trio of new studies and an accompanying editorial published in Annals of Internal Medicine argue that no, multivitamins and mineral supplements are not effective at improving overall health or preventing disease, and in fact, they can actually do harm. That's a lot of money for nothing.
“Sales of multivitamins and other supplements have not been affected by major studies which [show no benefits], and the U.S. supplement industry continues to grow, reaching $28 billion in annual sales in 2010,” the authors of an editorial accompanying the three studies write. “The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.”
I would tell my patients that no good reason exists for taking these vitamins, that they should save their money and not spend it on something that is not really doing any good.
A team at Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed the medical data of almost 6,000 men enrolled in the Physician’s Health Study II and found that long-term multivitamin supplementation had no effect on cognitive functioning in men 65 years old or older.
In the third study, investigators reviewed the records of people who had had heart attacks to see if high-dose vitamin and mineral supplements could prevent another heart attack in these patients. They found that vitamins and minerals did not appear to prevent future coronary events, although many of the study participants did not use the supplements consistently.
When asked what advice he would give his patients about vitamin supplements, Eliseo Guallar, lead author of the editorial, told The Doctor, “I would tell my patients that no good reason exists for taking these vitamins, that they should save their money and not spend it on something that is not really doing any good.”
So what is the best way to maintain good health? Focus on other preventive measures that doctors and scientists know will work.
If you think about it, if you are taking a multivitamin every day of the week, at the end of the month, that is easily one or two copays for the real prescription medicines.
“Make sure you get good preventive care consistently, that you have healthy lifestyle habits such as a good diet and exercise, and that you do not smoke,” says Guallar, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
“What we are questioning is the wisdom of getting vitamins on top of those already found in the diet,” Guallar says. “I think we have good evidence now that those extra vitamins are not very helpful.”
“You have to prioritize what you are going to do for your health,” Gervasio Lamas, an author of the third study said. He also echoed Guallar’s sentiment that appropriate lifestyle choices are important.
Lamas, chair of the department of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center and chief of the Columbia University Division of Cardiology, also mentioned medications that have been proven to be effective such as statins, which lower cholesterol. “If you think about it, if you are taking a multivitamin every day of the week, at the end of the month, that is easily one or two copays for the real prescription medicines.”
Vitamin supplements can be necessary and beneficial for some, says Guallar. For example, for people who have deficiencies, or who live in underdeveloped countries and have limited dietary options, taking a vitamin to ensure your body has enough is a good idea.
Vitamin supplements may also be necessary in certain stages of life, such as taking folic acid during pregnancy to prevent birth defects. But most adults living in developed countries do not need extra vitamins.
All three studies and the related editorial were published recently in Annals of Internal Medicine.