Must we really take our (multi)vitamins?

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In Tuesday s Wall Street Journal, Melinda Beck investigates the efficacy of the ubiquitous multivitamin. What she uncovers, in fact, is that the majority of us don t need one at all. Beck points to a 2007 National Institutes of Health (NIH) panel, which concluded that the present evidence is insufficient to recommend either for or against the use of [multivitamins and minerals] by the American public to prevent chronic disease. It s a conclusion that is echoed by NIH s Dr. Paul Coates, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements, who observed, If you are taking multivitamins, there is no reason to stop, and if you are not taking them, there is no reason to start.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom comments, It would be difficult to come up with a less helpful recommendation than this. Dr. Coates is, in fact, saying that it makes no difference whether you take the stuff or not. If he believes this, he should just come out and say that no one should take a multivitamin at all. One would think that the head of the NIH supplement division could do a little better than this.

The admitted irrelevance of multivitamins to most of us aside, Beck does point out that there are certain populations who can indeed benefit from taking a vitamin. For instance, women who are or may become pregnant require extra folic acid to reduce the risk of fetal neurological problems; people over age 50 become increasingly less able to absorb vitamin B-12 as they age, and the concentrated amount in a vitamin (or even an injection) might be necessary; and breastfed infants and those over 60 (especially women) who are less sun-exposed need supplemental vitamin D.

Beck also notes the rare instances in which taking a vitamin could result in harmful levels in a person a fact complicated by the one-size-fits-all Daily Values labels that don t take into account the different needs of various ages and health conditions. Too much vitamin A, for example, can cause headaches, hair loss, visual disturbances, and may even increase the risk of osteoporosis; it can also be dangerous for younger children.

Yet it is, again, important to understand that the general population has very little to worry about when it comes to vitamins. For a more nuanced look at what Dr. Bloom calls Vitamyths, check out his article from our Health Facts and Fears archives.