Why are you taking a multivitamin?

For most Americans, a daily multivitamin is an unnecessary habit.

Are you one of three Americans who swallow a multivitamin every morning, probably with a sip of water? The truth about this popular habit may be hard to swallow.

“Most people are better off just 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 Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance. In addition to saving money, you will have the satisfaction of not succumbing to deceptive marketing programs.

That’s because for the average American adult, a daily multivitamin doesn’t provide a meaningful health benefit, as recently noted 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 stroke, nor does it help prevent early death.

“We have good evidence that for the vast majority of people, taking multivitamins won’t help you,” says Dr. Cohen, an expert in dietary supplement research and regulation.

Who might need a multivitamin or individual supplements?

However, there are some exceptions. Highly 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 is not getting enough sun exposure. Your doctor may recommend an iron supplement if you have a low red blood cell count (anemia).

Why is it hard to give up the habit of a daily multivitamin?

Surveys suggest that people take vitamins to stay healthy, feel more energized or gain peace of mind, according to an editorial accompanying the USPSTF review. These beliefs stem from a powerful story about vitamins being healthy and natural, dating back nearly a century.

“This story appeals to many groups in our population, including those who are progressive vegetarians as well as conservatives who are suspicious of science and think doctors are up to no good,” said Dr. Cohen.

Unproven marketing claims for dietary supplements

Vitamins are very cheap to make, so the companies can put a lot of money into advertising, says Dr. Cohen. But because the FDA regulates dietary supplements as food and not prescription or over-the-counter drugs, the agency only monitors claims related to disease treatment.

For example, supplement makers cannot say that their product ‘lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease’. But their labels may 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 if they have benefits, when in fact there are no benefits. It is enshrined in law,” said Dr. Cohen. It is prudent to note the legally required disclaimer on 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 this disclaimer — “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent” — doesn’t seem to affect how people perceive the marketing claims.

While multivitamins don’t help, at least they aren’t harmful. But the money people spend on them could be better spent on buying healthy foods, says Dr. Cohen.

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