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Should I Take a Multivitamin?

This question comes up a lot: Should I take a multivitamin for my health, at least for dietary insurance?

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This question comes up a lot: Should I take a multivitamin for my health, at least for dietary insurance?

“I was gardening for hours, cleaning out closets, energy, energy, energy!”

The 49-year-old woman from the Midwest gushed on amazon.com about the multivitamin she had been taking for all of one week. “I thought about it and realized it was the vitamins. I feel so much better overall than I’ve felt in several years. I will always take these.”

You may be asking, “Should I take a multivitamin, too?” You’re certainly not alone. One in three Americans say they take multivitamins and minerals regularly, downing 1 to 14 pills a day at a cost that can hit $75 a month.

Do multivitamins provide any tangible benefits? Can you get too much of any nutrients from a multi? And, if you’re in the market for one, what should you be looking for?

Should I take a multivitamin for my health?

Study after study finds little or no long-lasting benefit from taking a daily multivitamin-and-mineral:

  • Among more than 182,000 middle-aged and older men and women living in California and Hawaii, those who took multivitamins lived no longer and were no less likely to be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or cancer than those who didn’t take a multi.
  • The 41 percent of the more than 161,000 postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative Cohorts who were taking a multivitamin were just as likely to be diagnosed with breast, ovarian, colorectal, or another cancer as those who didn’t take a multivitamin.
  • One-quarter of the more than 83,000 men aged 40 to 84 in the Physicians’ Health Study were taking multivitamins. They were just as likely to die from coronary heart disease or stroke as the men who didn’t take a multivitamin.

Even when researchers look for more modest benefits, proof is elusive.

For example, healthy older adults who were given multivitamins in the United States, Canada, Scotland, France, and the Netherlands for up to 1 1⁄2 years were just as likely to get colds or other infections, stay sick just as long, or miss out on planned activities as similar people who were given a placebo.

And performances on memory and cognitive tests were no higher in healthy German women aged 60 to 91 who took a multivitamin for six months, or in healthy Scottish men and women 65 and older who took a multivitamin for 12 months, than in those who were given a placebo.

Should I take a multivitamin as dietary insurance?

Even if multivitamins won’t prolong your life or keep you from getting sick, “they can still fill in the gaps if you get too little of some vitamins and minerals from your food,” says Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and of psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston and author of “The ‘I’ Diet.”

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in 2010 singled out seven nutrients that many Americans consume too little of. Two of them—fiber and potassium—aren’t available in significant amounts from multivitamins, but the other five are:

  • Vitamin D. A majority of adults don’t get enough from their food (though our skin makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the UV rays in sunlight).
  • Folic acid. It helps protect against spina bifida and other neural tube birth defects that can occur before a woman knows that she is pregnant. About one in five women who are capable of becoming pregnant don’t get enough folic acid.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults over 50 should get some of their B-12 from fortified foods or supplements, since they may have too little stomach acid to absorb naturally occurring B-12 in foods.
  • Iron. About 15 percent of women 50 and younger are iron deficient.
  • Calcium. A majority of adults don’t get enough calcium from their food. Multivitamins—which typically have 100 to 200 milligrams—can help, though adults need 1,000 to 1,200 mg a day.

Are you still asking, “Should I take a multivitamin?” There’s not much evidence that people who take them are any healthier. Then again, a little insurance against something that may be missing from your diet couldn’t hurt.

Our advice: don’t waste your money on a multivitamin that has more than you may need…or should get.

Sources: Am. J. Epidemiol. 173: 906, 2011. Arch. Intern. Med. 169: 294, 2009.  Arch. Intern. Med. 162: 1472, 2002. J. Am. Geriatr. Soc. 55: 35, 2007. BMJ 331: 324, 2005. Ann. Intern. Med. 138: 365, 2003.  JAMA 288: 715, 2002. Int. J. Vitamin Nutr. Res. 63: 11, 1993. Prev. Med. 41: 253, 2005. Nutr. J. 6: 10, 2007.