May 2013

Are Multivitamins Worth the Cost?

A pill packed with lots of nutrients-a multivitamin-may seem like the perfect shortcut to healthy living. Chances are, though, you're already getting all the vitamins and minerals you need from the foods you eat. So unless you have a nutritional deficiency, multivitamins may not provide much health benefit.

Photo of couple looking at vitamins at the store

An uncertain health-booster

Multivitamins are the most popular type of dietary supplements taken in the U.S. Commonly sold in pill form, they contain all or most of the vitamins and minerals your body uses to function properly. The amount of each nutrient is often close to or equals the daily intake experts recommend.

Nearly 49 percent of Americans take some kind of supplement, such as a multivitamin. Why? Mainly to boost or maintain health. Unfortunately, research doesn't necessarily support that rationale. In fact, health experts don't hold a firm stance for or against multivitamins because of conflicting evidence.

A recent review of 21 studies on multivitamins found that they don't improve overall health. Most notably, they don't help protect against heart disease or cancer. Another recent study echoes that conclusion-at least for your heart. Researchers followed more than 14,000 men over an average of 11 years. Men on multivitamins didn't have a lower risk for heart disease. Yet those same men were slightly less likely to develop cancer.

More to consider

Regardless of the research, it's still a good idea to be cautious about multivitamins, especially if you are otherwise healthy. That's because too much of some nutrients can be bad for you. Consider iron. Many of us consume enough iron each day through food alone. But if you take a multivitamin loaded with iron, you may overdose on this valuable nutrient. High levels of iron can damage your liver and other organs.

Like other supplements, multivitamins can also interact with medications. In particular, multivitamins that contain vitamin K can affect blood-thinning drugs like warfarin. Vitamin K impedes the effectiveness of such medication in the body.

Nearly three-quarters of people who choose to take a supplement do so without their doctor's recommendation. That may not be the best approach. Your doctor can help you decide if a supplement is right for you based on your personal health history and dietary needs.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Choosing a Multivitamin or Any Dietary Supplement

Dietary supplements are more than vitamins and minerals; they include herbs, amino acids, even enzymes-basically anything that adds to your diet. Some people, such as pregnant women or older adults, may benefit from certain supplements. If you choose to take one, be smart about it:

  • Talk with your doctor about any supplements you are taking. He or she can help ensure you avoid any adverse reactions.

  • Don't buy supplements that contain more than the daily recommended amount of any vitamins and minerals. Taking too much of certain nutrients can raise your risk for serious side effects.

  • Beware of words like "natural" on the label. Some supplements may contain products that are natural, but that doesn't mean they are safe for you.

  • Watch out for misleading marketing. Avoid products that are based on a single study or claim they can prevent or treat a condition.

Test your knowledge about dietary supplements here.

Online Resources

FDA - FDA 101: Dietary Supplements

Office of Dietary Supplements - Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements


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