Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 34

‘You’re better off’ without multivitamins

Neal Barnard, MD, has a very clear message about multivitamins. “Multivitamins are a commercial product looking for a market,” he said. But Barnard can understand the reasoning behind multivitamins.

“The idea looks sound: ‘You need certain vitamins and minerals, so let’s throw them all in a pill, and you’re sure you’re going to be OK.’ That makes sense for people who may be low in one or another nutrient. But it has significant risks for people who are at risk for being overdosed on a vitamin or a mineral.” Barnard, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC, is co-author of a new study that found multivitamins do little to help you live longer and in fact may carry some health risks.

While an estimated 1 in 3 Americans take these supplements, he said that in general, “you’re better off without multivitamins.” Barnard believes they don’t give us what nature intended. For example, he said, “vitamin E exists in eight different forms in nature. So, if you eat an almond or a walnut, you’ll get eight different compounds called tocopherols. But if I put them in a multivitamin, I’m not going to put all eight of them in there. I’ll give you one or two. So, you may be messing up the balance that nature had in mind.”

The new large-scale study, which pooled data on three groups of people who were followed for over 20 years, finds that multivitamins did not lower the risk of early death overall, or from heart disease, cancer, or from diseases of the brain’s blood vessels. In fact, people who took vitamins daily had a 4% higher all-cause mortality risk than those who didn’t take them. But there are benefits from some specific supplements, a commentary to the study points out. Supplements like beta carotene, vitamins C and E, and zinc were linked to slowing the progression of age-related macular degeneration. Also, in older people, multivitamins were shown to improve memory and slowed declines in thinking skills. Also, the commentary notes, multivitamins may be a “convenient source” of vitamins, such as B12 and D, that many adults don’t get enough of from food.

The findings of the study echo those of previous studies. In 2022, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent, volunteer panel of national experts, looked at some of these other studies and found no connection between multivitamin use and deaths from all causes, cancer, or diseases of the heart and blood vessels. But the task force found insufficient evidence to recommend their use.