Multivitamins: Friend or Foe?

While some tenets of health are no-brainers, like “exercise more” and “don’t overeat,” others, such as multivitamin use, are more nebulous. Lately, there has been a lot of research on whether multivitamins are necessary for the average healthy person. The results just may surprise you!

Between 2003 and2006, 39% of Americans used a multivitamin supplement (a figure that was on the rise compared to 30% in 1988-1994). The most common reasons cited for use are to improve overall health and to fill in possible nutritional gaps. Seems like a quick-fix for anyone whose lifestyle doesn’t allow for the perfectly balanced diet (anyone? anyone?). And at worst, people figure, “well, it can’t hurt.” So, can a multivitamin help your health-filled dreams come true?

Word on the medical street is that in the absence of a known nutritional deficiency, there are no known health benefits from multivitamin use. Several major studies from the past year have concluded that daily multivitamin use does not protect against heart disease, cancer, or memory loss, nor does it impact overall mortality [1,2,3,4]. Antioxidants, folic acid, and B vitamins have not been shown to benefit overall health, either. And in persons with dementia, dietary supplementation with B vitamins, vitamins E and C, and omega-3 fatty acids have not improved cognitive function.

In fact, not only are multivitamins doing little to boost your health, but in excessive doses, certain vitamins may even cause harm. Concerning evidence has shown that β-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A can increase the risk of mortality. In another study, β-carotene was linked to an increased risk of lung cancer in individuals with underlying risk factors, such as smoking or asbestos exposure [3,7].

So what does this all boil down to? If you are a well-nourished person, daily multivitamin supplementation does not seem to prevent chronic diseases and may even be harmful. However, it is important to note that pregnant women are the exception: they should take a supplement with folic acid to help prevent brain and spinal cord defects in the developing fetus. If you have specific health concerns, it is best to discuss them with your doctor to explore a possible cause. And unless nutritional deficiencies are uncovered, dump the multivitamin and pursue a healthier sidekick!


  1. Bjelakovic G, Nikolova D, Gluud C. Antioxidant supplements to prevent mortality. JAMA. 2013; 310:1178-9.
  2. Fortmann SP, Burda BU, Senger CA, Lin JS, Whitlock EP. Vitamin and mineral supplements in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer: an updated systematic evidence review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Ann Intern Med. 2013; 159:824-34.
  3. Eliseo Guallar, Saverio Stranges, Cynthia Mulrow, Lawrence J. Appel, Edgar R. Miller, III; Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2013 Dec;159(12):850-851.