An Argument for Multivitamins
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the multivitamin have been greatly exaggerated.
While negative headlines pop up every so often, the truth is that for every negative claim, there’s usually an equally powerful positive one. (And the studies cited, as I’ll get into below, are often faulty themselves — and/or completely misunderstood.)
And not only do multivitamins have different levels of nutrients, but the forms of those nutrients as well as the fillers and processes used can vary wildly. I believe that writing off all multivitamins as ineffective would be like writing off all cars as gas-guzzlers.
With all that in mind, let’s take a second look at multivitamins.
Do Multivitamins Have Any Health Benefits?
A Closer Look at Three Negative Studies
The media has declared multivitamins DOA more than once in recent years. Like this WebMD headline: “Experts: Don’t Waste Your Money on Multivitamins.” Under that headline: “Three studies find the supplements don’t help extend life or ward off heart disease and memory loss.”
Well…break those three 2013 studies down, and they aren’t very useful when it comes to making an argument against multivitamins.
The first study gave 6,000 male doctors over the age of 65 either a multivitamin or a placebo for 12 years. The headline-grabbing takeaway was that there was no difference in memory problems between the two groups. But what the headline fails to mention was that “the same study had previously found that multivitamins might modestly reduce the risk of cancer and cataracts.” Subjects experienced an eight percent lower risk of cancer — 12 percent excluding prostate cancer. And according to a cover story in the January 2015 issue of The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action, if you look at men over 70 in the study, that number shoots up to 18 percent.
In the second study, researchers assigned 17,000 heart attack survivors a high dose regime of vitamins and minerals and found no difference in the amount of second cardiac episodes. But the participants were required to take six large pills a day, almost half of them didn’t finish the study, and the average time people kept up with the regime was 30 months — yet the results were tabulated for 55 months.
It’s hard not to question those numbers. Furthermore, heart issues are just one part of overall health.
The third study reviewed extensive data from 2005 to 2013 following vitamin and mineral habits of 450,000 people and found “a small, borderline-significant benefit from multivitamin supplements on cancer in men.”
Personally, I find a “borderline-significant benefit” to be intriguing in this situation.
That said, there was no knowledge of any known nutritional deficiencies in this study. Also, various brands were used, featuring various levels of various nutrients. In other words, they weren’t sure what kinds or how much of these micronutrients were being taken. Not much in the way of control!
A Closer Look at a Positive Study
In 2015, Reuters published this headline: “Long-term multivitamin-mineral use tied to women’s heart health.”
Well… there are issues here, too. In this study, twenty years of data showed that women who took a multivitamin (with minerals in it) for three years or more were significantly less likely to die. But the findings aren’t necessarily causal. It could be argued that the women who cared enough about themselves to supplement lived healthier lives in general.
Here’s what I think: Maybe this type of research — let alone the press about the research — isn’t the end-all-be-all.
Multivitamins are complex creations featuring a seemingly infinite variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fillers, so how can a blanket observation cover all of them?
And when it comes to epidemiological studies, people have wildly different lifestyles, so how can we parse those lifestyles in order to understand what’s causing what in the body — and how can researchers be sure people are actually complying?
Working with a doctor or nutritionist to tweak your diet is always the best way to get the vitamins and nutrients you need. However, until the research is definitive, I believe multivitamins can act as a safety net, no matter what the headlines tell you.