Some people take multivitamins to supplement some kind of nutrient deficiency. Limited diets, certain health conditions, and old age are some of the common situations in which they are recommended. Somewhere along the way though, multivitamins became widely mistaken by the (generally) healthy public as an elixir of life, capable of preventing illness and maintaining good health. Is it better to exceed sufficiency than to be deficient? Some research shows that there can be adverse effects from taking too unnecessary food supplements.
For certain people, particularly the elderly, supplementing the diet with additional vitamins and minerals can have health impacts, however the majority will not benefit. – Mayo Clinic Staff
A few years ago Duffy MacKay, vice president of the scientific and regulator affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition said “We all need to manage our expectations about why we’re taking multivitamins”. Regan Bailey from the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements once said “the majority of scientific data available does not support the role of dietary supplements for improving health or preventing disease”. Perhaps even more shocking than the fact that studies suggest no health benefit over placebo, is the fact that some research suggest high doses of certain vitamins may actually cause harm.
It seems each year studies come out that indicate no health benefits for an average healthy American, and many experts are urging people not to take the supplements.
It seems we have all heard that too much of a good thing can be harmful, and this seems to also hold true for multivitamin supplements. Two studies looking at the effect of multivitamins used in more then 400,000 patients found that those with a daily supplement had an increased mortality rate (Bjelakovic G. et al 2004 and 2007). A different study from 2007 found that women who took multivitamin supplements of vitamin C, E, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc had an increase risk for skin cancer (Hercberg S. et al 2007).
Many vitamins may not be fully absorbed for various reasons, like not having fat present for fat soluble vitamins. The multivitamins also don’t have bioactive compounds and dietary fiber that would be found in food. Sometimes a true deficiency will occur when someone is on a healthy diet, in these cases experts will suggest a supplement. For instance it is recommended for those with Celiac Disease, due to the leaky gut found in that condition. The best recommendation is that the decision is personal and that you should discuss taking supplements with your healthcare professional. Remember that they are called supplements and not replacements.
Even though its effects are contested, the dietary supplements market is growing by 6-7% every year. The global nutrition and supplements market, which includes sports and clinical markets, is estimated to be well over US$100 billion. The global fatty acid, botanical, and mineral supplement industry is also a multibillion-dollar industry and is expected to grow depending on the product by 7-25% every year. The National Institute on Aging states that within the next 5 years, “the number of people aged 65 or older will outnumber children under age 5”, but the projected growth in the multivitamin industry cannot just be accounted by our aging global population. They come in pills, liquid, gummy and now even as mints making it easy for people to find a way to take supplements.
People are attracted to the idea that all their potential health problems can be solved with a pill even if they can potentially do more harm than good to people that don’t need them. The best advice would seem to be eat a healthy balanced diet, because the old adage is true, you are what you eat.
Written by Michelle Mader, PhD
December 30th, 2015