thYesterday, I ran over to my local GNC store to buy my vitamins:  a “mega” multivitamin (with extra vitamin D) and a large bottle of vitamin C.  Nothing fancy.  I’m not the most compliant with taking my vitamins on a daily basis, but I figure I eat plenty of fruits and veggies to provide most of the essential nutrients my body needs.  Still, I forked over the fifty bucks to the salesman, knowing full well that I was going to be reading this headline this morning:

Experts: Don’t Waste Your Money on Multivitamins

Three studies find that supplements don’t help extend life or ward off heart disease and memory loss


Today, the Annals of Internal Medicine published three studies and an editorial (entitled: “Enough is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamins and Mineral Supplements”), all basically saying that vitamins do not improve your health at all.  But before you throw out all the vitamins you’ve stashed in your cupboard over the years, we should look at these three studies a little closer.

Grodstein, et al studied nearly 6,000 male physicians 65 years of age and older.  This is an age where cognition tends to be declining for most men (I’m sorry to say).  I suppose they chose physicians because they thought they would be more compliant taking the vitamins.  It couldn’t have been because they thought doctors would have a nutritional deficiency, since most doctors I know are pretty well-fed.  Anyway, the study found that after 12 years, there were no differences in cognition and memory in the group of men who took a multivitamin every day, and the men who took a placebo.

In the second study, Lamas, et al looked at more than 1700 heart attack survivors 50 years of age and older.  The patients (82% male and averaging 65 years and older), who after heart attack were all treated with standard heart medications, were either given a high-dose multivitamin and multimineral supplement, or placebo.  Compliance with the vitamin/placebo regimen was dismal, with almost half of study participants non-adherent. Nevertheless, the researchers’ conclusion was not surprising: giving high-dose multivitamins and minerals to older heart attack survivors did not reduce their risk of having another heart attack.

Finally, Fortmann, et al reviewed numerous previous studies relating vitamin supplement intake in “nutrient-sufficient” adults to the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer.  Their conclusions:

Limited evidence supports any benefit from vitamin and mineral supplementation for the prevention of cancer or CVD. Two trials found a small, borderline-significant benefit from multivitamin supplements on cancer in men only and no effect on CVD.


So, are vitamins worthless?  If you read the headlines or watch the evening news, you’d probably think so.   About all you can conclude from these studies is that if you are an older, well-nourished American — maybe someone recovering from a heart attack and trying to prevent another one, or an older male doctor who wants to slow down his inevitable mental decline, or someone who wants to prevent heart disease and cancer from happening — vitamins will not help you reach those specific health goals.

Nadia Kounang has the push-back:

However, Gladys Block, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at University of California Berkeley, pointed out that the group of men followed in the cognitive study were all physicians with no health problems.

“These are very well-nourished, very health-conscious people,” she said.

In fact, she says none of the studies accurately represents the American population.

Block has spent her life studying the role of Vitamin C, in particular, on disease risk factors and says that most Americans are undernourished. She says that most Americans don’t have a healthy diet, and therefore don’t get the vitamins and minerals they need.

“You’re not getting any of these micronutrients from Coke and Twinkies,” said Block.

“Two-thirds of us are overweight, a quarter over 50 have two or more chronic conditions, so there’s a substantial population that one would hesitate to call healthy.”

Block went on to say, “There’s always a nontrivial minority that’s actually getting a questionable level of some micronutrients. So multivitamins are a backstop against our poor diet.”


“Coke and Twinkies.”  Great.

The points that need to be made are pretty obvious.  Waiting until you are over 50 (and some of these study patients were a lot older) to worry about your vitamin and mineral intake is probably too long to wait.  And you shouldn’t expect vitamins and minerals to help you at that age — or any age — if you subsist on a diet of processed junk.  That ship of fools has sailed,  on its way to obesity, heart disease, and chronic illness.

Disease prevention starts in the pediatric population.  But there is a better term we should be using instead:  health promotion. Good nutrition should start at birth and promoted for good health throughout childhood.  Tomorrow, we’ll look at the obstacles to better nutrition in childhood.  We’ll also look at whether children should take vitamin supplements at all.