Written by Taylor Smith
“Don’t forget to take your vitamin!”
It’s an imperative command many of us are familiar with. Moms and wives remind children and husbands to take their Centrum or Flintstones multivitamin. Odds are you’ve shouted it at someone or had it shouted at you at some point in your life. But why?
Traditionally, it was thought that most of us had dietary deficiencies of some sort due to our modern western diet consisting mainly of processed and fast foods. And there’s some truth to that. Many of us do have holes in our diets that eating more cheeseburgers is never going to fill. So, responsible parents everywhere tried to make sure that kids were getting all the vitamins and minerals they needed to be healthy.
Those who support the efficacy of vitamins often cite the poor nutritional value of the foods most Americans eat most often. It’s clear that our bodies need certain vitamins and minerals to function at their best and our primary source of these things has always been what we eat and drink.
These days, there are all sorts of vitamin supplements that tout all manner of benefits.
“Take this to improve brain function! Take this to have more energy! Take this to improve joint health,” and the list goes on. In the past, vitamin supplements have claimed to decrease the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer, and even add years to your life. It all sounds a little too good to be true, doesn’t it?
According to a recent article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, it is too good to be true. In fact, this article cites at least four different studies that show multivitamins had no positive effect on cognitive function, the prevention of chronic disease, and in some instances have actually done harm for people who take vitamins as a largely preventative measure, but have no noticeable deficiency.
Statistics show that the number of Americans using multivitamin supplements has steadily risen over the last two decades, despite little evidence supporting their usefulness and sobering evidence showing no benefit and even possible harm.
“Although available evidence does not rule out small benefits or harms or large benefits or harms in a small subgroup of the population, we believe that the case is closed—supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful,” says Eliseo Guallar, MD, DrPH of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the authors of the recent article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. “These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.”
It is important to remember that the studies scholars like Dr. Guallar are referencing were all studies that sought to determine the effects of vitamin supplements in individuals with no apparent dietary deficiencies—healthy individuals with access to a typical western diet. The findings of these many studies do not include special needs individuals with certain dietary needs or conditions.
It is certainly logical to think that a person who is not getting enough calcium from his or her diet would benefit from a vitamin supplement that augmented their intake of calcium. No one disputes a vitamin’s ability to plug the gaps left because of a poor diet. The problem is that the average American’s dietary lapses are self-inflicted, more often than not, and we think that taking a daily multivitamin means we can eat whatever we want. Tragically, this is false.
Our primary source for vitamins should be nutritious foods.
On a smaller scale, we can supplement our diets with store bought vitamins, but over the long-term, there’s no substitute for eating right. If you’re avoiding entire food groups, (all vegetables except for iceberg lettuce, for example) there’s not a daily multivitamin in existence that can bridge this particular dietary gap.
The daily multivitamin debate is one that will continue to change as we come to understand more about the benefits, or the lack thereof of, of daily multivitamins. If you insist that your daily multivitamin works and you’re unwilling to let it go, make sure you’re not exceeding the daily recommended value. Like any good thing, too much can be a bad thing, so respect the limits. And remember, the simplest solution is the best.