Multivitamins: Again, Studies Show They Are Useless For Most of Us

I’ve blogged a couple of times about this, and now a trio of studies seriously underscores what I previously mentioned: a multivitamin is a waste of money for the vast majority of people taking them. Including myself.

I actually had stopped taking them a couple of years ago but recently restarted — not for any particularly good reason, I admit. But now we have three very strong, enormous research studies involving over 450,000 persons which may indeed warrant the blunt editorial title: Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.

To recap these studies, published in the new issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine:

  • A large literature search aimed to find out if long-term use of a multivitamin helped to prevent deaths from heart disease or cancers. They analyzed data from over 400,000 persons and concluded that “limited evidence supports any benefit from vitamin and mineral supplementation for the prevention of cancer or cardiovascular disease. Two trials found a small, borderline-significant benefit from multivitamin supplements on cancer in men only and no effect on cardiovascular disease.” This last comment refers to the tiny decrease in cancers in older men, when used for over 10 years. But this relative risk of 0.93 is debatably insignificant — and how does it make sense for men only, and not women?
  • The second study tested multivitamins in people who had recently suffered from a heart attack, following them for over five years and measuring how many died or had more heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems. This study showed no statistically significant improvement, but so many people stopped taking the multivitamins (46%) that it’s difficult to be truly definitive here.
  • The third study tested over 5,000 doctors for more than 12 years, assessing whether the group taking a daily multivitamin had less problems with age-related memory loss and cognitive decline than the placebo group. Again, there was no difference in mental ability between these two groups.

I have to admit that these studies, especially the first study, are quite conclusive, and now I think I’ll just stop taking my daily pill (again). There really isn’t any reason why any reasonably healthy person, eating basically normal food, in any developed country, should take a daily multivitamin. But does this new evidence convince you at all? A huge and growing percentage of people all over the world are taking daily multivitamins, despite all of these increasingly broadcast studies. Why? Why are so many of us simply ignoring science? Read their final statement:

“The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided. This message is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, who represent most supplement users in the United States and in other countries.”

Are you really not going to change your habits?


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7 thoughts on “Multivitamins: Again, Studies Show They Are Useless For Most of Us”

  1. Well, the body, as designed by our Creator, has basic nutritional needs. If it is lacking in any of these, the body will eventually suffer ill effects. Ideally, our nutrition should come from wholesome plant food grown in naturally fertilized soil and clean, well-fed, and well-cared-for animals, but alas, the soils are deleted (and have chemical fertilizers–and pesticides, not to mention tampering with the genetics) and the animals are raised in large facilities with growth enhancers, antibiotics, etc. So while supplements should not be needed _in ideal conditions_, we are not in ideal conditions, hence there is a case for quality supplements (including natural vitamins and minerals) to make up for the lack of them in our diet. Lack of vitamin C = scurvy, etc., etc. That aside, thanks for caring about people’s health and for your informative site and newsletters.

    1. What you say has bits of common sense in terms of animal conditions and soils. But there’s simply no evidence that any major developed country such as the USA has any true nutritional deficiencies. So no, the point remains that there isn’t any such thing as a “quality supplement” multivitamin, even when compared to Centrum etc, which has any proof at all of long term health benefit. And any company advertising such extra health benefits basically is making false health claims. Show me the RCT studies showing that “premium” multivitamins have any long term health benefit, when compared to a normal diet or a daily Centrum or Costco-style pill, and then maybe we could restart this discussion.

      1. Richard

        How can you say “there’s simply no evidence that any major developed country such as the USA has any true nutritional deficiencies.” The USA has got a serious nutritional problem: you just have to look at its obesity problem. Multi-vitamins assist a lot of people who ordinarily do not get the right dietary balance. They work; there is so much anecdotal evidence about.

        Your argument chooses studies over anecdote and in doing so fails to offer a balance by not considering anecdotal evidence from people’s opinions.

        Kindly apply a little more objective reality and less arrogance to your comments.
        DF

  2. I was recently diagnosed with chronic radiation enteritis. To control my symptoms I’ve been eating a low-fiber diet, avoiding many of my favorite vegetables and whole grains. I’m also lactose intolerant. My symptoms are better, but I basically eat white rice, pasta, and potatoes with protein and a very narrow selection of vegetables. I started taking a multi-vitamin and am considering calcium supplements. Am I correct to assume in my case they are beneficial?

  3. Hi. What a great website. I am from LA, and found this website thanks to a link in an LA Times report on the terrible air quality in Beijing (and many locals’ lack of response.)

    Anyway, you can say that tests suggest there are no benefits of taking vitamins in terms of “cardiovascular disease,” “cancer,” “keeping people alive longer following a heart attack,” or “lessening age-related memory loss,” or “chronic disease or death.” I would say in response that most people don’t take a simple daily multivitamin for these reasons, they don’t expect such results, and what’s more, I haven’t really found these to be particularly common selling points on the part of manufacturers, either. I would also add that these above conclusions aside, taking a multivitamin has never been shown to bring about NEGATIVE results, has it?

    In addition, I have yet to see a single analysis of the psychosomatic effects of taking vitamins and feeling good about “doing something that’s supposedly healthy for you.” The power of the mind and the way people think positively or negatively can influence people’s health in many concrete and proven ways. I know of many people, for instance, who when coming down with a cold, decided they just WEREN’T going to catch a cold, popped a lot of Vitamin C into their bodies, and….didn’t catch a cold! Maybe there’s no connection, but…maybe there is?

    Finally, as you are probably aware, even though ill-informed patients in numerous studies are given placebos (sugar pills), the simple fact that they THINK it is doing them good/is medicine often leads to some quite astounding physical results in all kinds of documented case studies.

    So, do you have any test results for the positive mental consequences of thinking one is doing something healthy when they gulp down their daily (and nominally costly) multivitamin?

    Thanks for your time and keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Jon, thanks for the question. Yes, the placebo effect is quite real and powerful. But if it were so powerful, and if people taking multivitamins somehow willed themselves into better health, then wouldn’t that show up in improved data like heart disease and death, compared to people who don’t take any vitamin? I don’t care if it’s a placebo effect or not — if people are healthier, that’s wonderful! But no, there wasn’t even a blip of improvement in those people.

      And yes, the same literature I quoted does detail how some vitamins in high doses actually can be harmful for you, especially the vitamin E disaster with data proving it actually causes more heart problems, not less…http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/news/20050315/vitamin-e-harms-more-than-helps

  4. Such an awesome topic. To begin, I am an advocate for adding supplements to ones diet. As noted by George, we do not live in an environment where we can get all the nutrients we need from our diet. Some of the studies showing that vitamins are useless need to be researched to see who is funding that conclusion. The Pharmaceutical industry in this country has monopolized the entire health industry Doctors cannot recommend or buy into vitamins because they would not make a dime. They make money selling drugs. I feel sorry for them, they have been handcuffed.

    Straying off the topic a bit. Doctors that practice alternative medicines are being forced out of business or out of the country by the system. The system wants no part of it because the people in charge of the system would not make any money. There are cures for many types of cancer, but the system will not allow for it. Can you imagine the insane amounts of money that would be lost if these cures were available to everyone. If anyone doubts this they need to remove the blinders.

    So back to multi-vitamins. It follows the same thinking. The big sellers in the multi-vitamin arena are one-a-day and centrum. These are made by the big drug companies to make themselves look good and make a profit selling garbage. You get what you pay for. If you can find a good, well made, high potentcy, high absorbancy vitamin it will make difference for you.

    As for the placebo effect, if the power of positive thinking works then taking a real quality version can only make a physical difference.

    And as for the MD’s example of the vitamin E disaster. Nobody with any qualification would recommend or approve of taking that much vitamin E, or any vitamin for that matter. That is typical MD hogwash making themselves sound smart and protecting their interests, making money.

    The body is amazing, the design as again, pointed out by George, is beyond our comprehension. But we need help to keep it healthy. If you feel you are lacking in an area do your homework, find out what supplement might work, consult a alternative health expert. Not me, I am just a guy who believes the current state of healthcare in this country is controlled by the pharmaceutical companies who DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU. The doctors are in a no win situation as mentioned already, they can’t help you.
    Alternative health options are out there people, you just have to find them.

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