I don't know who I should be frustrated with - the authors of these recent multi-vitamin studies or the media reporting. Maybe both. I am not saying we should or we shouldn't take vitamins. I just would like the information to be clear, fair, and balanced. In this case, with both studies, the reports are none of the above. Not only that, but the study printed in the Annals of Internal Medicine is titled: "Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements." Wow! That is a pretty extreme title. The research they gathered must be strong! Not so.
First off, the studies are focused on multi-vitamins. A multi-vitamin is a very different kind of vitamin and/or mineral than taking specific vitamins, minerals, and supplements on their own. For example, it is not necessary for anyone to take iron, a mineral, unless specifically diagnosed as deficient. So, a multi-vitamin might provide what is NOT needed and could actually be more harm than good. Same is true with beta-carotenes found in some multi-vitamins. That is a waste of money.
Typically, those of us diagnosed as deficient in any area - calcium, Vitamin D, iron, etc. are prescribed or told to take that supplement alone with a certain measurement of IUs (International Units) or grams (g. or milli- mg, etc.). Try to find that measure in a multi-vitamin and you could be short-changed. Best to buy what you need in it's pure form, void of other vitamins and minerals. In addition, as the studies do indicate, we can metabolize only certain amounts of substances in a particular amount of time. The rest, well, it gets literally flushed. So, buying smaller amounts of exactly what you need and taking twice a day will allow the body to get what it needs and stop you from flushing away your money.
You can do the math on this. Many authors write about how many mgs or IUs the body can handle and how much to take at any one time. Creating a blanket statement of waste is just short-changing the public's ability to handle good information. It is true, however, that the general amounts allocated in a multi-vitamin are going to create waste. Some vitamins and minerals are water soluble - they come out in the urine, if not absorbed and used. Others are fat soluble and can become toxic in the wrong dosage. Multi-vitamins make this tricky, because everything is lumped together in one pill. So, it might be that taking things separately, as needed, in amounts that work for your size and lifestyle, is the best bet for the money.
The reason I would not take a multi once I reached adulthood (I did love those Flintstones vitamins as a kid), is that I knew some did not get along well and others get along really well. For example, take iron with vitamin C helps make them available to the system. Don't take Vitamin C with zinc, etc. What's right and what's wrong? What goes together and what doesn't? I just decided to do my research, look at what might be deficient in my diet or during particular times of the year, what I'd like to increase and take those individual vitamins and minerals with some intentionality. It is clearly more complicated than just wadding all the vitamins and minerals up into one and taking that horse pill each and every morning.
How can these researchers say with clarity that all supplementation is a waste of money when the studies were based on one vitamin brand and only a multi-vitamin? Some argue that the brand was a low-potency brand and the results wouldn't be strong with such a poor quality multi-vitamin. In addition, there are multiple studies that show specific vitamins are beneficial. The vitamins B-12 and B-6 are shown to be beneficial, but in this multi-vitamin there wasn't the same beneficial amount as in previous studies. Other studies show vitamin E is beneficial - in its gamma tocopheral format. Well, a multi-vitamin can't hold gamma tocopheral well, so the vitamin usually contains alpha tocopheral which is not beneficial to cardiovascular health. This is complicated! Making a big statement like that title - Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements, is just plain irresponsible.
The second problem I have with the studies is they are reporting and studying disease prevention rather than healthy lifestyle. Most people taking vitamins and minerals hope there is some preventative benefit in the long term, but in the short term they are doing something healthy for themselves. Making life -body and mind - better. Do vitamin and mineral supplements make life on an everyday basis better? Do we have more energy? Do we feel happier? I don't want to live a life where all I do is prevent disease. I want to live a life that is active and happy, a life in which everyday is enjoyable. It's not all about disease - it might be that vitamins and minerals make life better! Where's that study? Did researchers include that in their I am wasting money assumption?
My biggest peeve about the reports is that no one is saying that the first study was done only on men. It was! I thought we were past this ridiculousness in the medical field when we discovered that women have very different kinds of heart disease, stroke and age-related decline than men do, so we'd better start doing studies on both sexes in order to have good information. I don't know if this is good information for me, because I am a woman and the study was done only with men. Not to mention the men were older - they were taking Centrum Silver. May or may not be applicable to for sure 53% of the population, not to mention all those under 50, male or female.
Finally, the studies were only about cognitive decline (the first one reported which was the all-male study) and heart disease (the second, with unknown percentages of males to females and age levels on this one). What if mult-vitamins are good for cancer prevention? Awwwww shucks, we threw them all out, because you told us to! Classic throw the baby out with the bath water!
Here's the best true statement that can be made, in my opinion: If you are taking your multi-vitamin only to prevent cognitive decline and you are male and around 50 or older, then ok, throw it out. If you are taking your multi-vitamin to prevent heart disease alone, then you might be on the right track in chucking your multi as well, it might not be doing much good. However, there was NO evidence that it was doing harm. In fact there was insignificant evidence that small improvements were present. For everybody else, the evidence is just not there....yet. Educate yourself, make decisions based on you as an individual, your health history, your family's health history, and your current lifestyle (which includes what you eat and drink). This is up to you. Research is biased and the media just up for a good hype on a very extreme title to a very poorly executed study and research article.
I, personally, change my supplementation periodically. I take B-12 regularly, because I am vegetarian and nearly vegan. I take Omega-3 supplements sometimes, but not regularly. In the winter, I take some zinc, vitamin D and magnesium for the immune system and the lack of sun exposure. I look at my lifestyle, my needs, my current health, my age, all of it. Sometimes, a lot of the time, I take no supplements. I don't need them or I can't afford them. All of this is important, so please educate yourself and take yourself into account, then do what's best for you.