It won't be easy to find a household in our country which does not have a multivitamin bottle. People from all walks perceive that taking one or two daily vitamin pills benefits health. It is also a common product in prescriptions.
Multivitamins are one of the most popular medications taken around the world. As it is an over-the-counter product, meaning no prescription is necessary for the sale, people can easily buy it. It is also not that strictly regulated as a drug; there are variations in the composition and amount from brand to brand. Generally, multivitamins contain thirteen vitamins and fifteen minerals; herbs, fatty acids, and amino acids are also sometimes added.
Usually, multivitamins are taken once or twice a day. A common belief is that by taking it regularly, we can help make our health better and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, e.g., heart disease, cancer, dementia, etc. But is it true?
Researchers from world-renowned Johns Hopkins University conducted a review of evidence on multivitamins. An editorial in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine titled 'Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements' tried to find out if daily multivitamins have any positive effect in reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer and improving cognitive functions. They analysed a lot of data from almost half a million people but failed to identify and significant benefit of multivitamins.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also performed a similar review. The verdict was that current evidence is not strong enough to recommend the daily use of multivitamins among adults who don't have a nutrient deficiency or other specific indications. Even if there is an indication, patients are better off with the specific nutrient they require rather than a bunch of vitamins mixed.
It is accepted that sometimes people would need vitamin supplements. But these are people with specific conditions. Pregnant women, for example, need certain supplements for a healthy fetus. People suffering from anaemia, malabsorption syndrome, and other pathological conditions may also require specific vitamins. But these patients must discuss this with the physicians beforehand.
People on a healthy, balanced diet will not get any additional benefit from multivitamins. If the diet consists of an appropriate amount of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and healthy fats, then it will be enough to provide the necessary vitamins and minerals. Thinking that taking multivitamins will improve your health or boost your immune system is inaccurate for these people.
Multivitamins are not replacements for a healthy and balanced diet. Their purpose is to fulfil a nutritional deficiency, if there is any. Only when nutritional needs are not met by diet alone may multivitamins play a role.
So, multivitamins without any proper indication do not make us healthier. Instead, taking too much may turn out to be harmful. Vitamin A toxicity, for example, can lead to many adverse health events.
Dr Larry Appel, director of the Johns Hopkins Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research, argued that "Pills are not a shortcut to better health and the prevention of chronic diseases." They can compensate somewhat for a poor diet, but the focus should be on improving the diet rather than chewing pills.
Appel correctly suggested that if a healthy dietary habit is adopted, we will get all the vitamins and minerals from food.