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Is There Really Any Benefit to Multivitamins?
A recent look at multivitamins by Johns Hopkins researchers shows that there’s no proof of benefit, but there is evidence of possible harm from high doses of certain vitamin supplements. Find out the one supplement deemed beneficial—and how others failed
Half of all American adults—including 70 percent of those age 65 and older—take a multivitamin or another vitamin or mineral supplement regularly. The total price tag exceeds $12 billion per year—money that Johns Hopkins nutrition experts say might be better spent on nutrient-packed foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products.
In an editorial in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine titled “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” Johns Hopkins researchers reviewed evidence about supplements, including three very recent studies:
- An analysis of research involving 450,000 people, which found that multivitamins did not reduce risk for heart disease or cancer.
- A study that tracked the mental functioning and multivitamin use of 5,947 men for 12 years found that multivitamins did not reduce risk for mental declines such as memory loss or slowed-down thinking.
- A study of 1,708 heart attack survivors who took a high-dose multivitamin or placebo for up to 55 months. Rates of later heart attacks, heart surgeries and deaths were similar in the two groups.
The Vitamin Verdict
The researchers concluded that multivitamins don’t reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline (such as memory loss and slowed-down thinking) or an early death. They also noted that in prior studies, vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements appear to be harmful, especially at high doses.
“Pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases,” says Larry Appel, M.D., director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research. “Other nutrition recommendations have much stronger evidence of benefits—eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugar you eat.”
The exception is supplemental folic acid for women of child-bearing potential, Appel says. “Folic acid prevents neural tube defects in babies when women take it before and during early pregnancy. That’s why multivitamins are recommended for young women.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all women of reproductive age get 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. The amount of iron in a multivitamin may also be beneficial for women of child-bearing potential, Appel adds.
“I don’t recommend other supplements,” Appel says. “If you follow a healthy diet, you can get all of the vitamins and minerals you need from food.”