Multivitamins: Are they worth the money?

“In addition to your prescription medicines, are you taking any over the counter vitamins or supplements?”  This is a question I ask every patient who comes to my office for a physical exam.  At least 50 percent of my patients respond that they are, which is consistent with the national estimates.  Of the 50 percent, multivitamins are by far the most common pill they take.  In fact, multivitamin use is so widespread that, according to the National Institute of Health, it accounts for almost 6 billion dollars in sales annually.  The main reasons I hear from patients as to why they take a multivitamin are that they don’t always eat enough fruits and vegetables so are making up the shortfall, and they heard a multivitamin daily will prevent disease.  Unfortunately, multivitamins don’t work for either of these reasons.

The scientific evidence against the benefits of multivitamins has been growing for twenty years.  More recently, The Physician’s Health Study II published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 found no health benefit in over 14,000 male physicians over the age of 50 after taking a multivitamin for more than a decade. Specifically, there was no difference in the number of heart attacks, strokes or death from vascular disease.  Similarly, the Women’s Health Study interim analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found no benefit over 16 years of multivitamin use in reducing rates of heart attack, stroke or death from vascular disease.  Finally, in 2013 there were three articles published simultaneously in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine that found multivitamin use offers little or no benefit compared to placebo.  Keep in mind, these five articles I just referenced are only several out of many that have come to the same conclusion.

While studies are helpful in clarifying misconceptions, even without the evidence is it really surprising that our efforts to create a pill fall far short of nature’s ability to develop amazingly healthy fruits and vegetables? Think about it a moment.  Fruits and vegetables have hundreds, if not thousands, of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that work together in concert to promote health in ways we don’t fully understand.  It is likely we still don’t even know all the components that are important.  If we agree this is true, then why would we believe a man-made multivitamin containing maybe twenty or so substances that were removed from their natural, organic form would be effective?  The short answer is it’s not.

While this scientific evidence and practical reasoning are terribly disappointing given the ease of taking a pill daily, it is better we know the facts so we can make choices that actually will promote our health now and in the future.  There is no substitute for nature.  So take the money you spend on multivitamins to the grocery store and stock up on delicious fresh fruits and vegetables!

Next week’s post:  Vitamins and Supplements, Part 2

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Author: mdpoet

Physician and poet living in North Carolina.

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