Multivitamins: Worthwhile or a Waste of Money?

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Vitamins and minerals are key micronutrients required by the body to allow for optimal health and longevity. Moreover, as we age, our needs of these vital micronutrients increases. Thus, it’s no surprise that multivitamin and multimineral supplements are the most popular choice for consumers. But are they really worth the price (or effective at all)?

Most people have a tough time meeting their nutrient needs through micronutrient-rich food sources, such as fruits and vegetables, each day. Naturally, they figure the prudent thing to do to remedy a poor diet is pop a few multivitamin tabs. While it would be great if meeting your micronutrient needs was that easy, research seems to suggest it doesn’t work that way. 

Read on to learn more about how the vitamins and minerals work, and why multivitamins are not necessarily all they are cracked up to be.

Function of Vitamins and Minerals

Research continues to show that deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals is a major cause of serious disease states and other health complications.[1],[2] Moreover, lack of these essential micronutrients can hinder normal growth and maturation of vital organs and tissues in children, leading to problems down the road.[3]

Vitamins are organic compounds that allow physiological reactions to occur in the body. Vitamins are either water soluble or fat soluble. Water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C and all B vitamins, cannot be stored in the body whereas fat-soluble vitamins can. Therefore, water-soluble vitamins tend to be eliminated from the body faster than fat-soluble vitamins. This is why so many products these days provide over 100% of the recommended daily value (RDV) of key B vitamins and vitamin C, because any excess will be rapidly excreted from the body. Nevertheless, deficiency of these water-soluble vitamins can reduce physical performance by interfering with energy production and/or increasing susceptibility to colds and infections.[4]

Moreover, efficacious doses of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D3, are crucial for proper bone health, calcium absorption, immunity, and well-being.[5] Minerals, on the other hand, help support growth and repair of body structures, such as bones, teeth, and muscles. They also regulate myriad metabolic reactions and act as small particles that carry electrical charges, called ions and electrolytes.[6]  Common examples of minerals include magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc.

Theoretical vs. Actual Benefits of Multivitamins

It is purported that supplementation of vitamins and minerals may help lower the chances of specific micronutrient deficiencies, but much of this depends on bioavailability of these supplements. Research cited herein suggests the benefits of multivitamin supplementation may include:

  • Supports cognitive function and mood
  • Provides antioxidants to help regulate oxidative stress
  • Help you meet daily vitamin and mineral needs
  • Support energy production and vitality
  • Support healthy immune function

Sadly, many supplement companies emphasize quantity over quality and use inferior, biologically inactive forms of vitamins and minerals. It’s extremely simple to just load up a product with 100% of the RDV of myriad micronutrients and hope that people just assume it’s healthy. The end result is micronutrients that don’t get put to good use in the body and eventual deficiency in certain compounds.

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What’s even more curious is that meta-analyses of individuals who use vitamin and mineral supplements show no difference in health, longevity, or quality of life than people who don’t use such supplements. [7]In fact, the mortality rate of people who use vitamin and mineral supplements was even higher than control groups in some studies.[8]

Unfortunately, most of these studies were longitudinal and didn’t control for things like diet and activity level. Therefore, we can’t necessarily draw any causation or even correlation from them. Nevertheless, these studies hold some significance as they were performed on hundreds of thousands of average people from many ethnic backgrounds and age groups.

Granted, this not suggesting that vitamin and mineral supplements are inherently bad for you, as that is simply not the case. In reality, these products hold merit for individuals who lack plant-based foods, such as broccoli and carrots, in their diet. In instances where someone doesn’t have a very healthy diet, vitamin and mineral supplements are decent options for keeping micronutrient intake adequate.

Moreover, vitamin and mineral supplements tend to be used by individuals who are well-educated about health/fitness and already eat a nominal amount of plant-based foods; it doesn’t seem like people who subsist on fast food use these supplements as a sort of crutch for a poor diet (though they should, at the very least). Females who are menopausal and/or on hormone replacement therapy would also be good candidates for considering the use of vitamin/mineral supplement.

Take-Home Message

Ultimately, it stands to reason that nothing will ever replace a sound diet with at least four to five servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day. While vitamin and mineral supplements may seem like a prudent choice for getting the micronutrients your body needs, the data just doesn’t match the claims. Also consider that vitamins and minerals found in foods are usually more biologically active than synthetic versions found in many dietary supplements.

                                                                                                              

 

 

[1] Ames, B. N. (2001). DNA damage from micronutrient deficiencies is likely to be a major cause of cancer. Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis, 475(1), 7-20.

[2] Rasmussen, S. A., Fernhoff, P. M., & Scanlon, K. S. (2001). Vitamin B12 deficiency in children and adolescents. The Journal of pediatrics, 138(1), 10-17.

[3] Black, M. M. (2008). Effects of vitamin B12 and folate deficiency on brain development in children. Food and nutrition bulletin, 29(2_suppl1), S126-S131.

[4] Axelrod, A. E. (1971). Immune processes in vitamin deficiency states. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 24(2), 265-271.

[5] Misra, M., Pacaud, D., Petryk, A., Collett-Solberg, P. F., & Kappy, M. (2008). Vitamin D deficiency in children and its management: review of current knowledge and recommendations. Pediatrics, 122(2), 398-417.

[6] Maathuis, F. J. (2009). Physiological functions of mineral macronutrients. Current opinion in plant biology, 12(3), 250-258.

[7] Macpherson, H., Pipingas, A., & Pase, M. P. (2013). Multivitamin-multimineral supplementation and mortality: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 97(2), 437-444.

[8] Park, S. Y., Murphy, S. P., Wilkens, L. R., Henderson, B. E., & Kolonel, L. N. (2011). Multivitamin use and the risk of mortality and cancer incidence The Multiethnic Cohort Study. American journal of epidemiology, kwq447.

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