Citation(s) Needed: Multivitamins

This was originally written for the science column of my school’s newspaper. It was my first shot and I hadn’t quite figured out how to present it (I feel the subsequent articles are better). The title comes from me not being given enough space to include a bibliography, but it also justifies me not actually fact-checking anything I said. I’m pretty sure nothing I said is blatantly wrong, but take it with a couple shakers of salt.  – Baeo Maltinsky

You may have heard that current multivitamins don’t do much to help healthy non-deficient people. This is technically true, but not the most complete account of it. The evidence tells us that health outcomes are not improved, and are possibly even slightly worsened by taking multivitamins. The research available has some methodological problems, but it’s indicative of something.

Is that it then? Are multivitamins just useless? I don’t think so. Not necessarily at least. Referring back to the original sentences, let’s take a look at the two qualifiers I used. The first one, “current”, is quite important. Most of the multivitamins studied contain excessive quantities of some nutrients, even approaching toxic levels. Vitamin E, for example, is known to be toxic at daily dosages of 400 mg, yet it’s not uncommon for multivitamins to contain that much. It’s not as if it’s impossible for a supplement to improve health outcomes. The anticarcinogenic effects of selenium supplementation are well documented. It could very well be the case that modern formulations are just so awful as to cover-up the good with the bad.

The other point that deserves mention is the idea that your typical westerner isn’t deficient. Now, as a rule of thumb, the official requirement of a nutrient is a low-end estimate (Vitamin D being a good example, but that’s a story for another time). With this is mind, the official daily allowance of potassium is 4700 mg. To get that from diet, one would need to eat a dozen bananas a day. Practically everyone is deficient, and that’s just one nutrient. Proper supplementation could help to alleviate this.

This issue deserves a more nuanced discussion, but our time is short. The simple fact of the matter is that, with the situation today, it probably isn’t worth it to take a normal store bought multivitamin. As we learn more about nutrition, this could change, but I’d recommend sticking to specific supplements for now.

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