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December 4, 2015

Should You Be Taking Vitamins?

by Amanda MacMillan


Do you take a daily multivitamin or another regular vitamin or mineral supplement? About half of all Americans do, according to a 2013 survey. If you’re one of them, you may think your habit is an easy way of protecting your health – like wearing your seat belt every time you get in the car. But in fact, the vitamin decision is a little more complicated than that, says Kenneth Spaeth, MD, a North Shore-LIJ Medical Group physician. Vitamin supplements probably aren’t useful for some people and may even be risky – but for others, they can be an important aid. Here’s what you should know before you pop that daily pill.

For many people, there’s no proven benefit
A series of studies published in 2013 found that people who took daily multivitamins did not live longer or have lower rates of cancer or heart disease than people who didn’t supplement. Some evidence even suggested that certain nutrients (like vitamin E and beta-carotene) may actually be harmful in the long run.

These findings have led many doctors to advise against multivitamins for healthy adults. “Vitamins can be expensive, and the money you’re spending on them could be going toward something that has actual proven health benefits, like exercise,” says Spaeth. “If a gym membership or exercise equipment gets you to work out regularly, that’s a much better investment.”

It’s not that nutrients are unimportant, he says. It’s just that the vitamins and minerals in supplements don’t seem to be a great substitute for those you get from natural sources. “It’s smart to get most of your vitamins and minerals by eating a variety of foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables,” Spaeth says. Supplements aren’t a shortcut, nor should they be an excuse to skimp on a healthy diet.  

But some people can use an extra boost
Of course, certain groups of people should take regular supplements to make up for deficiencies or to address special health needs. If you have dark skin or spend most of your time indoors, for example, you may need a vitamin D supplement, since your body may not make enough of the “sunshine vitamin” on its own.

Pregnant women need prenatal vitamins, which contain nutrients like folic acid – a vitamin that slashes the risk of major birth defects affecting the brain and spine. People 50 and older may need vitamin B12 supplements (from pills or fortified foods), because stomach acid levels decline with age, and that makes it harder to absorb B12 from food. And some people who take prescription medicines, or who are on restrictive diets, may also benefit from taking specific supplements.

Bottom line: Always talk to your doctor
The question of whether to take a multivitamin or any over-the-counter supplement is not one you should answer on your own. Because your doctor knows your health history, your current medications and your specific dietary needs, he or she can give you advice on what vitamins or minerals might be helpful for you.

If you do decide to start taking a vitamin or mineral supplement, remember: More isn’t necessarily better. Taking supplements in doses higher than directed can cause unpleasant side effects like nausea and diarrhea. In some studies, overdoing it on vitamins has even been linked to serious diseases, like cancer.

If you currently take a supplement, make sure your doctor knows about it. And if you’re thinking about trying a new one, ask him or her about the benefits and risks first. “We want patients to make informed, smart decisions when it comes to their health and their budget,” says Spaeth, “especially when the science suggests their money could be better spent elsewhere.”