Vitality

The Truth About Vitamins: Are They Actually Making Us Healthier?

oranges
The best way to get your essential vitamins — like C, B12, and A — might be from eating the right foods. stefelix / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

You might swear by your vitamin supplements and take your pills religiously, but how do you really know if they’re working?

The jury has been out for a while on whether multivitamin supplements actually keep you healthier, or if they just have a placebo effect. But new research has been amassing and finds that overall, the effects of multivitamins are pretty much neutral, ineffective, null and void for people who are already healthy to begin with.

Here’s the thing: vitamins in and of themselves are crucial to our body’s functioning and health. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are 13 essential vitamins that we must consume (usually through food) in order to stay alive and well. Those include Vitamin A, C, D, E, K, B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6, and B12; as well as pantothenic acid, biotin, and folate (folic acid). Each of these vitamins has a specific health role; for example, Vitamin B6 — also called pyridoxine — helps form red blood cells and keeps the brain functioning well. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid — which can be found in bell peppers, dark leafy greens, broccoli, berries, and citrus fruits like oranges — is an antioxidant that protects your teeth and gums, and also assists the body in absorbing iron. Vitamin C is helpful in healing wounds as well. Then there’s Vitamin D, known as the “sunshine vitamin” since our bodies extract it from sunlight, which helps the body absorb calcium to maintain teeth and bones.

Vitamin deficiencies can occur when you don’t get enough of one or several vitamins, and deficiencies have been linked to a variety of disorders and illnesses. Certain people need extra vitamins at times, like pregnant women, young children, or people who live in areas that lack sunlight (and thus lack Vitamin D). As a result, doctors often prescribe multivitamins to people who need extra ones. But average Americans who are well-nourished and healthy have become consumers of multivitamin supplements too — a market that has grown rapidly in recent years, yet might be complete bogus, according to recent scientific evidence.

The Bad

Many scientists argue that vitamin and mineral supplements are a waste of money. The American Heart Association recommends relying on food for nutrients rather than supplements because there “isn’t sufficient data to suggest that healthy people benefit by taking certain vitamin or mineral supplements in excess of the daily recommended allowance.” The association also advises specifically against antioxidant vitamin supplements for A, C, and E, since no proof exists that they reduce blood pressure or blood cholesterol.

In a 2013 study that several universities collaborated on, including Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Warwick Medical School at the University of Warwick in the U.K., researchers examined the results of three studies on the efficacy of multivitamins on well-nourished and healthy adults. They concluded that there was not enough evidence to support that the use of multivitamins was beneficial — or even particularly harmful — among healthy adults. “The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided,” the authors write.

In the abstract, the authors continue that “despite sobering evidence of no benefit or possible harm,” the use of multivitamins amount adults in the U.S. increased from 30 percent between 1988 and 1994, to 39 percent between 2003 and 2006. “[S]ales of multivitamins and other supplements have not been affected by major studies with null results,” the authors write, “and the U.S. supplement industry continues to grow, reaching $28 billion in annual sales in 2010.” These trends are also visible in the U.K. and throughout Europe, the authors note.

Though the use of multivitamins showed to have no positive effects on cardiovascular, cognitive, or overall health, the authors did note, however, that more research will be needed to see whether Vitamin D supplements are helpful — specifically for people with a deficiency. Some studies have shown that Vitamin D supplements reduced falls in older people, while the majority of studies have shown that the supplement didn’t have an effect on falls at all.

“Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful,” the authors write. “Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases. Although available evidence does not rule out small benefits or harms or large benefits or harms in a small subgroup of the population, we believe that the case is closed…Enough is enough.” Well, there you have it.

The Verdict

The fact is, you can derive nearly all of your essential vitamins from healthy foods like fish, leafy greens, fruit, and nuts — or from getting an average of 15 minutes of sunshine every day, for Vitamin D. Choosing the right foods to eat is what the federal government recommends in Dietary Guidelines for Americans, according to the NIH.

Find Vitamin K in kale, spinach, turnip greens, collards, Swiss chard, parsley, and fish. Vitamin B12, meanwhile, can be found in shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs, and some cereals. Vitamin A can be discovered in yellow and orange fruits like grapefruit, apricots, cantaloupe, pumpkins, and carrots. So keep your eyes open for the foods that contain essential vitamins, and you may not need to spend your money on pills. For a list of important vitamins and the foods they’re in, go to the NIH website.

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