A couple years ago, the media declared multivitamins DOA. “Experts: Don’t Waste Your Money on Multivitamins,” claimed WebMD back in 2013, “Three studies find the supplements don’t help extend life or ward off heart disease and memory loss.”
Yet, to paraphrase Mark Twain, it appears reports of the death of the multi have been greatly exaggerated. While the headlines quickly worked their way into popular sentiment, the truth is that the studies weren’t as damning as you’d think. And for every negative claim, there’s usually an equally powerful positive one, such as a more recent study spelled out by this Reuters’ headline, “Long-term multivitamin-mineral use tied to women’s health.”
Furthermore, there are the matters of logic and common sense to be considered. Not all multivitamins are created equal. Not only do they have different levels of nutrients, but the forms of those nutrients as well as the fillers and processes used can vary wildly. Writing off all multis as ineffective would be like writing off all cars as gas-guzzlers or all dogs as vicious killers.
Another important point is that multivitamins are a collection of individual vitamins and minerals—and when you look at the research on these individual elements as isolated nutrients, you’ll see strong evidence of their benefits. It builds a compelling case for their combined use.
With that in mind, let’s take a second look at multivitamins.
So what about those negative studies?
If you break the three 2013 studies down, you’ll see that they’re about as useful as a bartender’s guide at an AA meeting when it comes to making an argument against multivitamins. The first study gave 6,000 male doctors over the age of 65 either a multivitamin or a placebo for 12 years. The headline-grabbing take-away was that there was no difference in memory problems between the two groups. But what the headlines failed to mention was that the multivitamin takers experienced an 8 percent lower risk of cancer—12 percent excluding prostate cancer. And according to a cover story in the January 2015 issue of The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action, if you look at men over 70 in the study, that number shoots up to 18 percent.
In the second study, researchers assigned 17,000 heart attack survivors a high dose regime of vitamins and minerals and found no difference in the amount of second cardiac episodes. But the participants were required to take 6 large pills a day. Almost half of them didn’t finish the study and the average time people kept up with the regime was 30 months—yet the results were tabulated for 55 months.
It’s hard not to question those numbers. Furthermore, heart issues are just one part of overall health.
The third study reviewed extensive data from 2005 to 2013 following vitamin and mineral habits of 450,000 people and found “a small, borderline-significant benefit from multivitamin supplements on cancer in men only and no effect on CVD.”
Personally, I find a “borderline-significant benefit” to be intriguing in this situation. That said, there was no knowledge of any known nutritional deficiencies in this study. Also, various brands were used featuring various levels of various nutrients. In other words, they weren’t sure what kinds or how much of these micronutrients were being taken. Not much in the way of control!
What about that new, positive study?
Honestly, the recent, pro-multivitamin research can be picked apart as well. In it, twenty years of data showed that women who took a multivitamin (with minerals in it) for three years or more were significantly less likely to die. But the findings aren’t necessarily causal. It could be argued that the women who cared enough about themselves to supplement lived healthier lives in general.
In other words, maybe this type of research isn’t the end-all-be-all. Multivitamins are complex creations featuring a seemingly infinite variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fillers, so how can a blanket observation cover all of them? And when it comes to epidemiological studies, people have wildly different lifestyles, so how can we parse those lifestyles in order to understand what’s causing what in the body— and how can researchers be sure people are actually complying?
So we’re just supposed to take our vitamins on blind faith?
Of course not. There are other ways to gauge the possible benefits of a multivitamin. We can go seriously Vulcan on the situation, employing analysis and logic.
With analysis, we break down a complex issue into its simpler parts. While trying to look at a whole multivitamin is confusing, when we look at the individual nutrients, we start to see clearer benefits from supplementation.
For example, vitamin D deficiency is a well-established issue in our modern world, having reached “pandemic” proportions according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Luckily, vitamin D supplementation has been shown to help keep bones and muscles healthy and possibly help in warding off a host of other issues, including diabetes and cognitive decline.
Magnesium is another nutrient many of us don’t get enough of. According to some research, almost half of Americans get under the Recommended Daily Allowance, which may play a part in a host of issues, including metabolic syndrome and various inflammation-related disorders.
And on it goes. Iron, vitamin B12, calcium, folate—when you look at these micronutrients, you’ll see that a lot of people don’t get ’em and we all need ’em.
When you combine all this information, multivitamins suddenly become a logical solution. Of course, the best solution would be to get all your nutrients via a rock-solid diet. A smart balance of fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and thoughtfully selected animal products should address most peopl’s needs. But honestly, very few people manage to pull off the perfect diet. And even if you nail it, other factors can work against you. For instance:
• If you’re on a challenging exercise program, you may be blowing through certain macronutrients at a very high rate, especially electrolytes and many B vitamins.
• If you’re eating a calorie-restricted diet for weight loss purposes, there’s simply no way to get all the nutrients you need. You’re just not eating enough food.
• If you eat a specialized diet, it might mean you’re low on some micronutrients. Vegans and vegetarians can easily under-consume nutrients found in animal products, most notably vitamin B12 and D. People on “low-carb” diets may eat a reduced amount of fruits and veggies, leading to low levels in several vitamins and plant-based phytonutrient antioxidants.
Tweaking your diet is always the best way to get around these roadblocks, but as you do that, a solid multivitamin can help fill the gaps. Supplements don’t replace a good diet. After all, it’s established that the closer a nutrient is to its natural state, the more effectively we absorb them. However, multivitamins can act as a safety net, getting you through the rough patches, no matter what the headlines tell you.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Beachbody sells the multivitamin Activit. While I feel this fact doesn’t bias my opinions—not to mention the science and logic supporting my opinions—transparency is important.