Study Suggests Multivitamins Don’t Work

This is a reprint of a Live Science article. It reinforces what I have been reading for some time. The bottom line: humans evolved to get our nutrients from real food not artificial vitamins and supplements. And note the importance of the plant-based foods! 🙂

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Long-term multivitamin use has no impact on the risk of common cancers, cardiovascular disease or overall mortality in postmenopausal women, a new study finds.

The message is simple and echoes the advice of most researchers who have looked into the effects of diet: Eat real food.

Several other studies have shown vitamin supplements to be next to worthless and in some cases harmful.

“Get nutrients from food,” said study leader Marian L. Neuhouser of the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center. “Whole foods are better than dietary supplements. Getting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is particularly important.”

Multivitamins because they are the most commonly used supplement in the United States, used by more than half of residents, who spend more than $20 billion on these products each year, Neuhouser said.

“To our surprise, we found that multivitamins did not lower the risk of the most common cancers and also had no impact on heart disease,” she said.

The results were published in the Feb. 9 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Study details

The study was big. It assessed multivitamin use among nearly 162,000 women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative, one of the largest U.S. prevention studies of its kind designed to address the most common causes of death, disability and impaired quality of life in postmenopausal women. The women were followed for about eight years.

Of the participants, 41.5 percent reported using multivitamins on a regular basis. Multivitamin users were more likely to be white, live in the western United States, have a lower body-mass index, be more physically active and have a college degree or higher as compared to non-users. Multivitamin users also were more likely to drink alcohol and less likely to smoke than non-users, and they reported eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming less fat than non-users.

During the eight-year study period, 9,619 cases of breast, colorectal, endometrial, renal, bladder, stomach, lung or ovarian cancer were reported, as well as 8,751 cardiovascular events and 9,865 deaths. The data showed no significant differences in risk of cancer, heart disease or death between the multivitamin users and non-users.

Not news

These findings are consistent with most previously published results regarding the lack of health benefits of multivitamins, Neuhouser said. But this study provides definitive evidence.

“The Women’s Health Initiative is one of the largest studies ever done on diet and health,” she said. “Because we have such a large and diverse sample size, including women from 40 sites across the nation, our results can be generalized to a healthy population.”

Since the study did not include men, Neuhouser cautions that the results may not apply to them.

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4 Comments

Filed under health, science, veganism

4 responses to “Study Suggests Multivitamins Don’t Work

  1. How does this show that the vitamins in multi-vitamins are not utilized in the nutritive sense? It doesn’t. Two completely different subjects. You would have a very hard time showing that fresh fruits and vegetables prevented any of these health risks in a significant way and indeed, it says that the multivitamin users tended to reported eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

    In fact if you look many such statistical analyses you find that people who take vitamin supplements tend to be more in tune to healthy nutrition in general.

    It is pretty much impossible to “prove” a negative. Vitamin supplements are “supplements” and nothing more. But the oft-uttered statements about vitamin supplements not being used by the body is simple pseudo-science. The nutrients can come in different forms and some ARE more biologically active than others.

    But, if you have a person suffering from scurvy and you give him ascorbic acid tablets, the symptoms will almost immediately begin reversing. Why? Ascorbic acid is the basic nutrient here and it doesn’t matter if it comes in food or a tablet. Same thing with rickets and vitamin D and a host of other defeciencies.

    It has been shown time and time again that a SUPPLEMENT will reverse a DEFENCIENCY. Period. So yes, they can “work”. That doesn’t mean they are needed or that all vitamin forms used in supplements are created equal.

  2. theformerfundie

    Hi Eric. Thanks so much for your reply.

    Did you check out the link to the other studies that question the benefits of vitamin supplementation? Most of these are well-designed, randomized, double-blinded studies. And they point in the same direction.

    One of the problems I have with the marketing on vitamins is that they often are touted as preventative “medicine” for cancer, strokes, etc. (See, for example, http://www.tennessean.com/article/20081222/NEWS07/812220362). These studies say that it doesn’t work.

    On the other hand, if you are interested in an excellent and comprehensive study of the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet, I would recommend Colin Campbell’s, “The China Study”. Campbell is one of the top nutritional scientists in the USA and this book provides a compelling argument that such a diet has an immense impact in safeguarding one from cancer, heart conditions, and many, many other diseases.

    My point in this blog is not that mulitvitamins can’t be used to counter some specific conditions. Take one of your examples, scurvy. Taking a Vitamin C pill will undoubtedly help alleviate that condition. But taking a pill instead of eating fresh fruit means you miss out on all the other benefits, such as fibre, other vitamins, natural forms of sugar for energy, etc.

    Also, an optimal diet emerges out of the complex interactions of whole foods, not just specific vitamins. We evolved as food eaters (and largely plant eaters — see for example “Diet and Primate Evolution” in Scientific American Special Edition, “Becoming Human — http://weber.ucsd.edu/~jmoore/courses/web159/159%20MiltonEcolHypothSciAm2006.pdf) and we do best when our diet follows the path nature laid out.

  3. theformerfundie

    Another great article on the relationship between diet, science and health is “What Does Science Say You Should Eat?” in Discover magazine, Feb. 2004 (http://discovermagazine.com/2004/feb/science-diet).

  4. I understand what you are saying. But the central thing you keep saying is that they don’t “work”. If a nutrient fulfills it’s function in the body it “works”.

    Do I think that multivatamins prevent or alleviate chronic health problems? Of course not. But I believe that if we want to provide true and unbiased health information we must be precise or else run the risk of simply being another source of media misinformation. It is simple not true that vitamins don’t work. To say that they don’t cure health problems is not the same.

    They obviously can alleviate acute problems so I don’t understand how you can agree with that and still insist they don’t “work”. We must define what we both mean by work and my definition seems to be a bit different from yours.

    Carbohydrates don’t cure cancer but any carbohydrate will fulfill it’s primary function..to provide energy. Therefore they work.

    As far as that goes you would have a hard time proving that any specific FOOD cured a health problem which is why we must have a varied diet based on all the things you have so correctly mentioned.

    I don’t care if the supplement industry makes more money, believe me, but I don’t like the idea of trying to call out the industry by using the same tactics they use..misinformation. And to say that an vitamin in it’s raw form will not work is simply not true.

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