With the New Year coming up, many of us think of this as time to take stock of our lives and do what we can to get healthy. And while there are plenty of useful steps we can take to transform our lifestyle, one common one — remembering to take a vitamin — may actually do more harm than good.
Vitamins sound like a great idea. One pill that can provide you everything you need!
If only they worked.
Half of American adults take vitamins every day. Yet after decades of research on vitamins, reviews don’t find any justification for our multivitamin habit, and in some cases, vitamins have actually been associated with an increased risk of various cancers.
It’s not that your body doesn’t need vitamins A, C, E, and so on. Without those substances we have a hard time turning food into energy and can develop conditions like scurvy or rickets.
The argument of vitamin makers is that we don’t get enough of these substances from our diets. Plus, there’s the implication that when it comes to vitamins, getting something extra can’t hurt.
Not only have researchers been unable to show a benefit to taking multivitamins or antioxidants for the general population, high doses of supplemental beta-carotene, vitamin E, and potentially also vitamin A have been associated with a higher risk of death.
Researchers do say that more work is needed before they can determine whether supplemental vitamin D may offer benefits for some people, though that still isn’t a claim that it’s necessary. And there may be small subgroups of the general population who for one reason or another need to compensate for a deficiency — listen to your doctor.
But writing last year in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers were clear:
Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided. This message is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, who represent most supplement users in the United States and in other countries.
Or as Paul Offit, chief of the infectious diseases division of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, wrote in the New York Times, vitamin manufacturers have successfully prevented the Food and Drug Administration from regulating the vitamin industry and informing the general population of whether not vitamins are safe in any way.
Because of that, he says, “consumers don’t know that taking megavitamins could increase their risk of cancer and heart disease and shorten their lives; they don’t know that they have been suffering too much of a good thing for too long.”
So the next time some well-meaning person asks you if you took your vitamins, you can happily respond, “absolutely not.” Save some money.
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