Among the many forms of supplementation that I’m asked about, multivitamins are the source of the most confusion among consumers. Multivitamins are marketed with a veneer of science but much of that image is a mirage – rigorous testing doesn’t support most of the outlandish health claims that are attributed to them. Yet not all vitamin and mineral supplementation is useless. They can be used appropriately, when our decisions are informed by scientific evidence: Folic acid prevents neural tube defects in the developing fetus. Vitamin B12 can reverse anemia. Vitamin D is recommended for breastfeeding babies to prevent deficiency. Vitamin K injections in newborns prevent potentially catastrophic bleeding events. But the most common reason for taking vitamins isn’t a clear need, but rather our desire to “improve overall health”. It’s deemed “primary prevention” – the belief that we’re just filling in the gaps in our diet. Others may believe that if vitamins are good, then more vitamins must be better. And there is no debate that we need dietary vitamins to live. The case for indiscriminate supplementation, however, has not been well established. We’ve been led to believe, through very effective marketing, that taking vitamins is beneficial to our overall health – even if our health status is reasonably good. So if supplements truly provide real benefits, then we should be able to verify this claim by studying health effects in populations of people that consume vitamins for years at a time. Those studies have been done. Different endpoints, different study populations, and different combinations of vitamins. The evidence is clear. Routine multivitamin supplementation in most people has not been shown to offer substantial health benefits.
It is a triumph of marketing over evidence that millions take supplements every day. There is no question we need vitamins in our diet to live. But do we need vitamin supplements? It’s not so clear. There is evidence that our diets, even in developed countries, can be deficient in some micronutrients. But there’s also a lack of evidence to demonstrate that routine supplementation is beneficial. And there’s no convincing evidence that supplementing vitamins in the absence of deficiency is beneficial. Studies of supplements suggest that most vitamins are useless at best and harmful at worst. Yet the sales of vitamins seem completely immune to negative publicity. One negative clinical trial can kill a drug, but vitamins retain an aura of wellness, even as the evidence accumulates that they may not offer any meaningful health benefits. So why do so many buy supplements? As I’ve said before, vitamins are magic. Or more accurately, we believe this to be the case.
There can be many reasons for taking vitamins but one of the most popular I hear is “insurance” which is effectively primary prevention – taking a supplement in the absence of a confirmed deficiency or medical need with the belief we’re better off for taking it. A survey backs this up – 48% reported “to improve overall health” as the primary reason for taking vitamins. Yes, there is some vitamin and supplement use that is appropriate and science-based: Vitamin D deficiencies can occur, particularly in northern climates. Folic acid supplements during pregnancy can reduce the risk of neural tube defects. Vitamin B12 supplementation is often justified in the elderly. But what about in the absence of any clear medical need? Continue reading