Are Multivitamins Bad For You?
For quite some time research cast a doubt on the benefits of multivitamin supplementation. Now it looks like at best they won’t do anything, but at worst could shorten your life span.
The Growing Evidence Against Vitamin Supps
Just pop a pill and you did something good for your body. Right?
It’s what I believed for ages and led me to spend tons of money on multivitamins and other health supplement paraphernalia. It was so much easier than trying to do that thing called “healthy nutrition” – eat your greens and the rest of the drill.
Then I looked into how much fact is behind our happy pill-popping practice:
- Already in 1996 researchers found that high amounts of vitamin A, the very vitamin often marketed as an “antioxidant” supposed to protect you from them, may increase the risk of cancer and coronary disease.
- In 2003, a Swedish study found that excessive consumption of the same vitamin may raise the risk of bone fractures up to seven times (PDF) – it was the fourth study coming to that conclusion.
- In 2007, again vitamin A, but also E, were linked to an increase in prostate cancer among men who habitually used multivitamin tablets.
Now two large studies published almost simultaneously add to this growing body of evidence.The first examined vitamin E and selenium use among 35,000 men and again found that vitamin E users had a higher risk of prostate cancer. The second took data from 38,000 Iowa women and found that during a 19-year period the risk of dying was higher among women who used multivitamins and other supplements.
Antioxidants And Athletes
For athletes, the recommendation in the last decades was that antioxidants will help their performance through disposing the waste products generated by strenuous exercise, “free radicals”. Especially the “big 3” antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and E, have been marketed as such by various supplement companies, who point at research like this 2005 study.
What they fail to mention is that most research stresses “a diet rich in antioxidants”, not antioxidant supplements. Your average apple contains about 2,000 physiologically active substances – a multivitamin may contain 12 of them and you are missing out on the other 1,988. It is a bit like reducing a philharmonic orchestra to the bass drums: You get the rhythm, but not the whole symphony.
And indeed, a 2008 paper found that oral administration of vitamin C – perhaps the antioxidant in the public eye – actually led to a decrease in training effect among endurance athletes.
How The Vitamin Supp Business Was Made
Vitamin C is also a good example of how you can create a market for a product.
Most people are aware that scurvy, the dreaded sailor’s illness, was cured by simply taking along a bunch of lemons, oranges or limes on trips – the vitamin C in those prove effective against it.
In the 1930s, a Swiss scientist found a way to artificially manufacture vitamin C, yet no one really needed it. People got enough vitamin C through their nutrition and the times when sailors suffered from scurvy were long over.
But pharmaceutical company Hoffmann – la Roche, strained by the economic crisis of the time, saw the discovery as a chance to save itself. Beat Bächi, researcher at the University of Bielefeld, who conducted research on the history of vitamin C , says that within the company the word was that to sell artificial vitamin C you simply needed a bit of “hocus pocus” and “invent some disease pattern for the people”.
True to its word, Hoffmann – la Roche started selling vitamin C as “Redoxon” and claimed that even a slight deficiency of it could make you tired and weak. The success of vitamin C, from virtually no market at all to possibly the highest selling vitamin supplement today, took its course. Hoffmann – la Roche still exists.
The campaign was in fact so successful that it was soon picked up by more companies, spread to the various other vitamins and that today we are hard pressed to find a food not coming with some vitamins added to it. Especially food products aimed at children proudly boast their vitamin contents, not to mention multivitamin products specifically made for them.
In light of what we talked about so far, this leaves a rather bitter taste. Most multivitamin tablets more than fulfill the recommended daily amounts. People using these and not taking into account what they get through their nutrition can easily reach dosages the research above classifies as harmful.
Vitamin Supplement Doesn’t Mean Substitute
The risk of a multivitamin killing you is, if you look through the research I referenced, still rather small. On the other hand, there also is no conclusive evidence that outside of a clear deficiency they will do any good. Is it time to save the money?
Maybe we should just remember that “supplement” is not a synonym for “substitute”.
Pictures courtesy of “Clean Wal-Mart“, “Family O’Abé” and Mills Baker.
Some interesting developments -> http://sweatscience.com/antioxidants-are-more-complicated-than-we-thought
Thank you for pointing me to that very interesting read and, btw, for letting me find out about that blog as well. Alex seems to compile and write tons of good stuff!
If you want to learn something, please read my post.
I had a severe case of short-term amnesia and some long-term amnesia. I basically developed Alzheimer’s by the age of 19 (after I began studies at a top 10 college). If I were younger I’m sure I would have been diagnosed with autism.
Went to over 20 doctors & spent $1,000s after I met my out-of-pocket trying to figure out what was wrong. Then Dr. House mentions Zinc can lead to psychological problems on TV. In 3 days I noticed major improvements in acne, mood, and memory (which deteriorate due to low Zinc levels – only in lab rats though, not humans. lol).
If ONE doctor had said “Hey, try out a multivitamin,” the past few years of my life would have been ENTIRELY different. But instead, they read the junk research papers that this article references.
Did you know that vitamins can’t be patented? Therefore pharmaceutical companies AND THE FDA can’t profit off of them. The only “hocus pocus” going on is what the government and big pharmas are doing to distort information.
The big thing to look out for is if vitamins are naturally or artificially derived. It’s the artificially derived ones (such as Centrum) that can cause problems. Notice that none of these research papers mention from where the vitamins were derived. The increase in prostate cancer came from artificial vitamin E. http://gaia-health.com/gaia-blog/2011-10-12/the-march-to-regulate-vitamins-bogus-study-claims-vitamin-e-increases-prostate-cancer/
I don’t understand what vits r gud is talking about. First he mentions that he had amnesia. Then in the next paragraph he says:”Dr. House mentions Zinc can lead to psychological problems on TV. In 3 days I noticed major improvements in acne, mood, and memory (which deteriorate due to low Zinc levels – only in lab rats though, not humans. lol).”
What does he mean. In the introduction he doesn’t mention that he had acne and goes straight into what Dr. House said about zinc. His statement,”In 3 days I noticed major improvements… ” seems to be a contradiction in terms. Does he mean that he stopped taking zinc or started taking it?
Furthermore, in the last paragraph, he states that “The big thing to look out for is if vitamins are naturally or artificially derived.” Can supplementary vitamins be naturally derived?
I have to admit, I didn’t wholly understand his point either. It’s not that vitamins are useless, just that supplementation may not be the best way to get them.
Not to mention that he obviously doesn’t have a f***ing clue about Alzheimer or autism.
Good article, and correct unless u have a specific need vitamins are nothing but extremely expensive urine! God we have to be diligent these days to read between lines and work out what’s real and not! My rule don’t eat anything with a face in massive amounts stay green and eat what comes from the earth 🙂
That seems to me is a good approach, Josh! 🙂
Cochrane very recently updated their antioxidant supplement study (www.thecochranelibrary.com/details/file/1598147/CD007176.html). They concluded:
“We have found no convincing evidence that antioxidant supplements decrease mortality. Even more, beta-carotene and perhaps, vitamin E and vitamin A seem to increase mortality. Therefore, we cannot recommend the use of antioxidant supplements as a primary and secondary preventive measure in the population groups studied in the present review.”
And for those wondering about a regular, over-the-counter multivitamin, well no randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial has been done yet that I know of. The only one is still in progress (PHS II).
Just yesterday I saw a report about an investigation regarding this, done by a very respected German news magazine, Der Spiegel. They asked manufacturers about these findings and the replies ranged from “we are currently not interested in an interview” to simply not replying at all.
Unfortunately it’s only available in German. Here’s the trailer:
Der Spiegel, sounds awesome haha!
Yeah these findings only further highlight what we’ve known all along – eat real food!
Watch the documentary called FOODMATTERS. Lots of good information on this subject.
Food Matters is a collection of the worst quackery out there: from detoxification to curing cancer with fruit juices, they have it all.
could we see your resources?
A good explanation of the detox idea is here, along with a host of other material:
That 2008 paper about vitamin C decreasing performance validates my own experience. I’m not an athlete – I’m just starting on a beginner program – but what I have noticed is this. If I take vit C after a workout, I feel better in the evening than if I don’t. But I do worse on the next workout. If I don’t take vitamin C, I feel tired and stiff in the evening, but I get a gain in the next workout.
I noticed this effect in the past too, with endurance activities like multi-day hikes. Take vitamin C and the next day is more of a struggle.
Incidentally my niece’s husband who is a medical researcher published a paper last year (or was it 2010?) on calcium supplements. It was a review of lots of prior studies and it showed that calcium supplements don’t work either. He is still getting hate e-mail. It seems most people really hate being told there’s no substitute for exercise!
Thanks for sharing this, Greg! And yes, it seems that some people become very irrational once they have adopted a certain view.
You should watch “Food Matters”
As already said above, Food Matters and the connected website provide a lot of quackery, starting with “detoxification” to curing cancer with fruit juices.
I’M STILL CONFUSED. ARE THEY GOOD OR BAD? I’VE THOUGHT ABOUT TAKING THE CENTRUMS, I’M 48 YEARS OLD AND I DON’T LIKE TAKING PILLS, BECAUSE I THINK ALL PILLS ARE HARMFUL TO OUR BODIES BECAUSE OF SOME SIDE AFFECTS THEY TELL YOU WITH CERTAIN PILLS AND AS FAR AS THE VITAMINS GO, WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY CAN CAUSE. PLEASE INSIGHT ME WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE ABOUT TAKING MULTIVITAMINS.
You probably are better off eating vegetables and fruits from time to time.
Greg are you talking about natural vita C? and are you taking something else? Cause what your describing is the effects of a drug, (it works while your on it and you crash later)
I asked a pharmacist whats a good multivitamin, and he said NONE. he was actually quite passionate about telling me their worthless and you may need em before surgery but thats it. He said people who rely on supplements dont live as long as people with balanced diets. (Makes sense to me) I was lucky to talk to him, im sure theres some store policies about telling people to Not buy their products. just like fucking doctors being sponsored by the pharm companies. It really is exhuasting having to question everything cant trust anyone.
Kevin, please give your pharmacist my regards. He gave you good advice, where others might have chosen to sell you something.
if one don’t get enough vegetables and fruits on daily basis, is it better to take multivitamin. what about kids? is it good for them or not.
Even if you don’t eat fruits and vegetables daily, it would take some time for a deficiency to build up. Also, vitamins are found in meat and milk as well.
If your nutrition or that of your child often lacks fruits and vegetables, you can think about occasionally supplementing with a multivitamin, but I wouldn’t do it on a daily basis.
You are very welcome! 🙂
Can you tell us who paid to have this “reasearch” done.
At the end of each study it is mentioned how it was financed. The Dietary Supplements and Mortality Rate study, for example, was supported by the National Cancer Institute, the Academy of Finland, the Finnish Cultural Foundation and the Fulbright program’s Research Grant for a Junior Scholar.
In case you believe it’s “big pharma” supporting these, you may want to read this:
The link is written about dietary supplements in general. While I’m sure people are dying due to supplements like weightloss pills and such, I doubt they are doubling over because of vitamin intake.
You can absolutely overdose on vitamins, most especially on vitamins like iron, selenium, and C. If multivitamins have been scientifically proven to be a waste of money (they have), and there is risk of overdose (there can be), it seems pretty illogical to take them, wouldn’t you agree?
What about Omega 3’s daily?
What about omega 3 supplements daily? I read that we should make sure to take that as well as vitamin D.
Very little positive to say about them:
In fact, evidence that they improve health for most people is inconsistent. In some cases, they may even cause harm. The researchers concluded that multivitamins don’t reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline.