Pros & Cons of Multivitamins

By Saba Barkneh, GHA Registered Dietitian

Do Multivitamins Make You Healthier?

If you take a multivitamin, it’s probably because you want to do everything you can to protect your health. And you’re not alone. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that more than one-third of all Americans take multivitamins, spending more than $5.7 billion each year. Older adults account for a significant part of these sales. A survey of almost 3,500 adults age 60 and older published Oct. 1, 2017, in The Journal of Nutrition found that 70% use a daily supplement (either a multivitamin or individual vitamin or mineral), 54% take one or two supplements, and 29% take four or more.

When you examine recent research and clinical studies, there is limited evidence that a daily cocktail of essential vitamins and minerals actually delivers what you expect.

Enough Is Enough & Too Much Could Be Dangerous

In an editorial in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine titled “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” Johns Hopkins University researchers reviewed a variety of clinical studies on the potential benefits of supplements. They concluded that multivitamins do not reduce the risk for heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline (such as memory loss and slowed-down thinking) or an early death.

Not only did they find that there are little to no benefits in taking multivitamins and supplements, they also found that high doses of some vitamins and minerals may actually have negative side effects and increase the risk of some conditions. For instance, they state that vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements appear to be harmful, especially in high doses.

There are some precautions such as this one from the Mayo Clinic, which shares that too much dietary vitamin C could cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, stomach cramps, headache and insomnia. More serious warnings are noted for other potential overdoses, such as this one from NIH regarding vitamin A. High doses of vitamin A, which is typically caused by ingesting mega-multivitamins, cause chronic toxicity which can lead to liver damage and increased pressure on your brain, resulting in changes in vision, bone pain and skin changes.

Not All Supplements Are Bad

All the supplement and mineral news isn’t bad. Individual supplements may play an important role if your doctor deems it necessary. For instance, women or men suffering from osteoporosis will most likely be encouraged or required by their healthcare provider to take extra vitamin D and calcium to help with building or maintaining bone mass. Folic acid is essential for women during pregnancy. And for those who suffer from a digestive condition like lactose intolerance, Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, supplements can be a lifesaver in helping them get nutrients their bodies won’t let them absorb through diet alone.

A Better Way

As a general rule, it is best to get your vitamins and minerals from food—not a pill. Eating a wide variety of foods can help you meet your nutrient needs and provide additional benefits foods have to offer, such as dietary fiber and antioxidants.

As a Registered Dietitian at Goodwin House Alexandria, I work with our chefs to ensure the meals we prepare are packed with nutritional power. Nature has provided us with the vitamins we need to remain active, healthy and vibrant!

Here are some examples:

  • Vitamin A is found in yellow and orange fruits (such as cantaloupe, mango and papaya), orange root vegetables (including pumpkin, carrots and sweet potatoes) and green leafy vegetables (such as spinach and kale).
  • Vitamin B6 is found in baked potatoes, bananas, beef, fish, fortified cereals, whole grains, nuts, beans, pork, chicken and fish.
  • Vitamin B12 is abundant in milk and dairy foods, meat, fish (especially salmon), poultry and eggs.
  • Vitamin E is found in Nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals.
  • Folate or folic acid can be found in orange juice, spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli, peanuts, avocado, enriched grain products and fortified breakfast cereals.

Relying on nature’s bounty is the best way to ensure you are getting what your body needs. Before adding to or changing your supplements regimen, be sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider. And most importantly, tell your providers if you are currently taking any multivitamins or supplements–they will be able to let you know about any possible side effects or adverse interactions with your current medications.

Saba Barkneh is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and has worked at Goodwin House Alexandria since 2015. Saba completed her studies in London, England, and received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutrition & Dietetics (with honors) from the University of London Kings College in 2001. She has been a Registered Dietitian since 2001 with the Health Professionals Council, U.K. and since 2006 with the Commission of Registration of the Academy of Nutrition Dietetic, USA. Outside of work, she is mother of two and enjoys long-distance running and Church service.