The health miracle that is the daily multivitamin may actually be just a costly myth, according to top medical experts.
In a 2014 paper published in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, scientists from Johns Hopkins, the American College of Physicians and the University of Warwick say "enough is enough" when it comes to the $28 billion spent annually on multivitamins in the U.S.
The researchers cited the results of three major studies—one that investigated whether high dose multivitamins reduced repeat cardiovascular events in heart attack survivors, another that looked at whether multivitamins could help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease in adults with no nutritional deficiencies, and a third that examined how taking a daily multivitamin affected the cognitive functioning of older men over a period of 12 years—to arrive at the conclusion that multivitamin supplements aren't useful for most people.
Rise of the Multivitamin Myth
Nearly 40 percent of Americans take much-lauded multivitamin supplements whose prevention properties are thought to encompass everything from cancer to Alzheimer's disease.
"Vitamins help people feel as though they're getting everything they need—like they're doing something that's positive for their health; something that's viewed as a form of insurance against developing a disease," says Liz Weinandy, M.P.H., a dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center (OSUMC).
But the sense of security offered by these pills is a false one.
Healthy food and sunlight are the two forms of fuel human beings were designed to run on, according to Robert Murden, M.D., a geriatrician and professor of general internal medicine at OSUMC. Murden says that while there's probably no harm in taking a multivitamin, there's likely no real value for most people either. "For individuals with good nutritional intake, there's probably no benefit to multivitamins, unless they have a nutritional deficiency," he says.
Supplements May Help Certain Seniors
It's this final caveat that throws a wrench into the plans of those who want a definitive answer to the question of whether multivitamin supplements are good, bad or neutral. As with most health situations, there's no one-size-fits all response.
Weinandy feels that there's nothing wrong with most people taking a gender and age-specific multivitamin, but pills shouldn't be used as substitute for good nutrition. "I see a lot of people taking supplements that may not be warranted," she says. "As we age, we tend to think about our health more, but it's important to focus on diet first and supplementation second."
For the elderly, advancing age can indeed make it more difficult for an individual to get the nourishment they need. Normal changes in the skin and digestive system make older adults more prone to experiencing shortages of vitamins D and B12, according to Murden.
Seniors can have trouble adhering to a healthy diet due to a loss of taste, diminished appetite, or a decrease in mobility and energy that may make it challenging for them to prepare nutritious food. Frozen and prepackaged meals present a tantalizing quick fix for this dilemma, but these products tend to contain high levels of sodium and lack sufficient nutrients.
Health experts agree that finding ways to help a senior easily access high-quality food items is often a better use of time and money than purchasing supplements. For some ideas of ideal foods for your loved one, see this list of eight, dietitian-approved quick and healthy foods for picky eaters.
If you're concerned a loved one isn't getting the nutrition they need, a visit to the doctor and a simple blood test can determine whether they are deficient in any key vitamins or minerals. The physician will then be able to come up with a customized plan to get your loved one the nutrients they need.