Taking vitamins you don’t need is not just a waste of money, it could also put your health at risk.
Let’s get down to business:
Myth # 1: anyone could benefit from a multivitamin
In the early 1900s, vitamin deficiency diseases were not unheard of: these days, it is extremely unlikely that you are seriously deficient. Most packaged foods are fortified with vitamins. Sure, most of us could do a couple more servings a day of products, but a multi doesn’t do a good job of replacing them. Multivitamins have perhaps two dozen ingredients, but plants have hundreds of other useful compounds. If you just take a multivitamin, you’re missing out on many compounds that may be providing benefits.
Myth # 2: a multivitamin can make up for a bad diet
A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine looked at the findings of the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term study of more than 160,000 middle-aged women. The data showed that multivitamin users are not healthier than those who don’t take the pills, at least when it comes to big diseases: cancer, heart disease, stroke.
Myth # 3: Vitamin C fights a cold
In the 1970s, Nobel laureate Linus Pauling popularized the idea that vitamin C could prevent colds. Today, pharmacies are full of vitamin C-based remedies but don’t be swayed by the hype. In 2013, researchers analyzed a series of studies that span decades, involving more than 11,000 subjects to reach a disappointing conclusion: Vitamin C did not prevent colds, except among marathoners, skiers, and soldiers in subarctic exercises.
The nutrient can help you heal a cold a day faster, but taking it only after symptoms appear doesn’t help. The researchers conclude that patients can decide for themselves whether it is worth using the pills year-round for minimal benefit.
Myth # 4: vitamin pills can prevent heart disease
At one point, the researchers hoped that antioxidant vitamins like C, E, and beta-carotene could prevent heart disease by reducing the build-up of plaque that clogs arteries. B vitamins were also promising because folate, B6, and B12 help break down the amino acid homocysteine, and high levels of homocysteine have been linked to heart disease. Unfortunately, none of those hopes have been fulfilled.
An analysis of seven vitamin E trials concluded that it did not reduce the risk of stroke or death from heart disease. The study also looked at eight beta-carotene studies and found that instead of preventing heart disease, those supplements produced a slight increase in the risk of death. The same is true for the other promising vitamin candidates. One thing has shown promise: CoQ10 Coenzyme may have some effect against heart failure (although it’s not technically a vitamin, it works the same way). Instead of taking pills, the American Heart Association recommends eating a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Myth # 5: taking vitamins can protect against cancer
Researchers know that unstable molecules called free radicals can damage the DNA in your cells, increasing the risk of cancer. They also know that antioxidants can stabilize free radicals, theoretically making them much less dangerous. So why not take some additional antioxidants to protect yourself against cancer?
Because research so far has shown that nothing good comes from taking such pills. Several studies have tried and failed to find a benefit, such as one published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that randomized 5,442 women to take a placebo or vitamin B combination. Over the course of more than seven years, all women experienced similar rates of cancer and cancer deaths.
Myth # 6: they don’t hurt
The old thought went something like this: sure, vitamin pills don’t help, but they can’t hurt you either. However, a number of large-scale studies have turned this thought into your head: The change began with a large study of beta-carotene pills. It was intended to test whether the antioxidant could prevent lung cancer, but the researchers found surprising increases in lung cancer and deaths among male smokers who took the supplement.
Then, a 2017 ten-year study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology looked at more than 77,000 adults over the age of 50: The results indicate that vitamin B6 and B12 supplementation increased the risk of lung cancer for men (although not for women). Other studies have raised concerns that taking high doses of folic acid could increase the risk of colon cancer. The bottom line: Vitamins are safe when you ingest them in food, but in pill form, they can act more like a drug with the potential for unexpected and sometimes dangerous effects.