New Study: Daily Multivitamins, Supplements ‘A Waste Of Money’

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The keys to a long, healthy life are exercising and eating well. But exactly what constitutes eating well is something that remains surprisingly undecided given the sophistication of modern science and the central role nutrition plays in good health.

In fact, one recommendation that most doctors seemed to agree with — take a daily multivitamin to plug any gaps in your diet — is facing a serious challenge in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The journal’s current issue features two studies and a meta-analysis which all conclude that multivitamins don’t deliver any significant health benefits.

“Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided,” the journal’s editors wrote in a note called, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.”

Vitamins and dietary supplements are a $12 billion industry in the United States.

One study followed nearly 6,000 men over age 65 for more than a decade and tracked cognitive function among those who took multivitamins and a control group. It found no benefit to the vitamins.

Another study tracked patients recovering from heart attacks who were given multivitamins or a placebo for four years. Although many patients in both groups stopped taking the pills, the vitamin group appeared to be no better off than the control group.

Perhaps most damningly, the meta-analysis sought out the best long-term studies on the effects multivitamins and common single-nutrient supplements had on cardiovascular disease and cancer. It found that taking multivitamins had no effect on the subjects’ chance of dying during the studies. Multivitamins showed a small anti-cancer benefit for men, but none for women. And smokers who took beta-carotene supplements had a greater chance of developing lung cancer than those who took nothing.

B_vitamin_supplementThe journal editors cite other studies that show that vitamin E and high-dose vitamin A supplements likewise increase the risk of death. Vitamin D remains an open area of investigation, they say.

The findings were not without critics. Participants in the study were all basically well-nourished, meaning that the findings may not apply to those who do not get enough of the nutrients in their regular diets. The men in the cognitive function study were physicians, who have the financial resources and education to eat a balanced diet.

The Natural Products Association, a trade group, pointed to flaws in the research.

“The authors’ hypothesis is flawed in that multivitamins are not intended to cure chronic disease or prevent death solely on their own. They are designed to address nutrient deficiencies, and to aid in the general health and well-being of consumers. Multivitamins are not meant to serve as the answer to all of life’s ailments; they are, however, an important piece of the puzzle in leading a healthy lifestyle,” Cara Welch, the group’s senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, said in the statement.

Emeritus U.C. Berkeley nutritionist Gladys Block put it more colorfully in an interview with CNN.

"Two-thirds of us are overweight, a quarter over 50 have two or more chronic conditions, so there's a substantial population that one would hesitate to call healthy,” she said. “You're not getting any of these micronutrients from Coke and Twinkies.”

Even so, longevity hounds who follow Ray Kurzweil’s lead in taking numerous nutritional supplements as they wait for big medical breakthroughs are not — Singularity Hub can only assume — subsisting on Coke and Twinkies.

For those looking to make the best use of healthcare dollars, it may be time to scratch multivitamins off the grocery list.

Photos: MarkBuckawicki and Ragesoss via Wikimedia Commons

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • dobermanmacleod December 18, 2013 on 1:05 pm

    What do doctors do when they discover a patient has iron deficient blood, or osteoporosis? The prescribe iron and calcium suppliments respectively. Guess this study will cause them to rethink that prescription, huh?

    • Cameron Scott dobermanmacleod December 18, 2013 on 3:30 pm


      No, there are still certain very specific conditions in which vitamins are recommended. The studies address everyday use by people without such a diagnosis.

  • Phil Nelson December 18, 2013 on 7:06 pm

    According to this same criteria, If we eliminated all the medicines that don’t improve cognitive functioning or prevent or cure cancer or heart disease, then we would eliminate 95% of all medicines!!!
    This is an absurd criteria. There is a huge amount of researched data supporting specific vitamins and supplements being effective for specific health issues.
    Instead, for vitamins and minerals we should research the optimal level for best performance, rather than “minimum daily requirement” to keep malnourishment diseases away! Start with Vitamin D3 which at high levels greatly boost the immune system.

  • Facebook -5 December 18, 2013 on 10:03 pm

    The usual deceptive anti-vitamin propaganda. The anti-bashing arguments and “scientific studies” are little more than distortions of the true facts. The medical orthodoxy, along with their sponsored mass media, have been telling the public distortions and lies about the benefits of supplements for decades. Just see how widely this “news” has been broadcast by the popular media, unlike positive news on vitamins. And they do it not just blatantly but by intentionally designing scientific “studies” to fail vitamins.

    The propaganda culture never stop spewing out disinformation on supplements so most people believe this misinformation instead of checking things out a bit more for themselves. For a worthwhile article revealing many of this misleading hype by both the popular media and the medical establishment google/bing “2 Big Lies: No Vitamin Benefits & Supplements Are Very Dangerous by Rolf Hefti”

  • Goten Trunks December 19, 2013 on 2:27 am

    This is just another day in drama media. The fact is no one can know with absolute certainty that they are lacking certain nutrients without regular clinical assessments. So while it’s true that mega dosing on vitamins/minerals will not cure a disease or condition, the fact remains that the vast majority of the population lacks critical micronutrients, for whatever reason, and taking a USP verified daily multivitamin would, at the very least, help to ensure they are receiving the nutrients that their body needs in addition to their normal diet. For vegetarians in particular it is important to take supplements, as they are missing critical nutrients in their diet. For verified uses that are approved through extensive research check Medline/National Institute of Health. Google: SupplementName Medline. (replace SupplementName with supplement of your choice)

  • Sergey Kurdakov December 20, 2013 on 3:31 pm

    the only problem with this research is personal experience. If I feel like catching cold and get multivitamins – I spare cold, if I do not – I get ill.

    If it helps in other cases – I even do not bother. But it saves me a lot of time not being ill with cold. as soon as I feel dizzy ( or feel catching cold ) I run to nearest sale-point where I purchase multivitamins and viola – I spare getting ill.

  • macaddict December 23, 2013 on 5:24 am

    Well, some people have specific needs for vitamin supplements. For example, most vegans take B12 ( The bottom line is that people need to carefully consider how they fuel their bodies. A balanced diet will result in a balanced life. Whole food, plant-based diets are healthiest ( and provide the best protection against heart disease, high cholesterol and obesity. The healthier your diet, the less one needs to rely on vitamin supplements.