My observant brother texted me this week asking what is the deal with multivitamins: Following a barrage of negative studies in the last few years suggesting that they may not provide any health benefit, and may even increase risk of cancer and death, he’d seen a new studypublished yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that finds multis may actually prevent cancer (at least in relatively healthy men who don’t smoke). As this Forbes blog post points out, the conflicting evidence is enough to give you whiplash. Yes, the results of the JAMA study were modest—there was only an 8% reduction in cancer diagnoses over the course of 10 years, and the results may or may not apply to women, smokers, or people with health conditions—but still, it was a very well-designed study, and it’s encouraging news. Hopefully, further studies will shed more light on the risks and benefits of multivitamin use in the general population, but for now, what should you do?
In general, it’s always better to get your nutrients from food and to rely on healthy lifestyle choices like exercising and getting enough sleep to prevent illness. So if you eat a relatively healthful diet (at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, plenty of whole grains, and lean protein, while limiting refined and processed foods and saturated and trans fats), you may not need a multi to fill in nutritional gaps. But if your diet is less than ideal, or if your nutrient need is greater because of certain health or lifestyle issues (see list below), ask your doctor whether a multi makes sense for you. One key takeaway from the JAMA study is that it looked at a balanced multivitamin, not those with mega-doses of certain nutrients or single-nutrient supplements, so keep that in mind when you’re shopping.
People who probably should take a balanced multivitamin or single-nutrient supplements with their doctor’s approval:
Pregnant women, who need the extra folic acid, iron, and calcium
Vegetarians and vegans, who may not be getting enough iron, and who need vitamin B12, which you can only get from animal foods
People with osteopenia or osteoporosis (who need calcium and vitamin D), anemia (iron), or other nutrition-related conditions (see my post on the nutritional downside of drugs for more about the ways certain medications can deplete nutrients)
People who should consider taking a balanced multivitamin:
Most others who don’t eat an optimal diet (which is quite a lot of us).
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