For most Americans, a daily multivitamin is an unnecessary habit.
Are you among the one in three Americans who swallow a multivitamin every morning, perhaps with a sip of water? The truth about this popular habit can be hard to swallow.
“Most people would be better off drinking a full glass of water and skipping the vitamin,” says Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and an internist at the Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance. In addition to saving money, you’ll have the satisfaction of not falling prey to deceptive marketing schemes.
That’s because for the average American adult, a daily multivitamin doesn’t offer any significant health benefits, like noticed recently by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Their review, which analyzed 84 studies involving nearly 700,000 people, found little or no evidence that taking vitamin and mineral supplements helps prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease that can lead to heart attacks and strokes, and nor do they help prevent an early death.
“We have good evidence that for the vast majority of people, taking multivitamins will not help,” says Dr. Cohen, an expert in dietary supplement research and regulation.
Who might need a multivitamin or individual supplements?
However, there are some exceptions. Very restrictive diets and gastrointestinal conditions, or certain weight loss surgeries that cause poor absorption of nutrients, are examples of reasons why a multivitamin or individual vitamins may be recommended. A daily vitamin D supplement may be necessary when a person does not get enough sun exposure. Your doctor may recommend an iron supplement if you have a low red blood cell count (anaemia).
Why is it hard to break the habit of a daily multivitamin?
Polls suggest people take vitamins to stay healthy, feel more energetic, or gain peace of mind, according to an editorial that accompanied the USPSTF review. These beliefs stem from a strong narrative about vitamins being healthy and natural that dates back almost a century.
“This narrative appeals to many groups in our population, including people who are progressive vegetarians and also conservatives who are skeptical of science and think doctors are no good,” says Dr. Cohen.
Unproven marketing claims for dietary supplements
Vitamins are very cheap to make, so companies can invest a lot of money in advertising, says Dr. Cohen. But because the FDA regulates dietary supplements as food and not as prescription or over-the-counter drugs, the agency only monitors claims related to the treatment of disease.
For example, supplement manufacturers cannot say that their product “reduces the risk of heart disease.” But their labels are allowed to include phrases such as “promotes a healthy heart” or “supports immunity,” as well as vague promises about improving fatigue and low motivation.
“Supplement manufacturers are allowed to market their products as having benefits when in fact no benefits exist. This is enshrined in law,” says Dr. Cohen. It is wise to note the legally required disclaimer for each product: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
But even the strong language in that disclaimer—”not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent”—doesn’t seem to affect how people perceive marketing claims.
Although multivitamins are not helpful, at least they are not harmful. But the money people spend on them could be better spent buying healthy foods, says Dr. Cohen.