by Brandy Abalos

More than half of all Americans, including 70% of adults aged 65 and older, take multivitamins. But are they really helpful? Researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine indicate that the $12 billion spent on vitamin and mineral supplements could be better used to purchase nutrient-packed foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy.

What Are Multivitamins?

A multivitamin is a dietary supplement that contains various vitamins and minerals and smaller amounts of other ingredients. There are no regulations for what must be in a multivitamin. The nutrient composition of multivitamins vary by brand and product.

These supplements are available in pills, tablets, capsules, gummies, powders and liquids. Most are supposed to be taken once or twice per day.

Multivitamins can be found at pharmacies, grocery stores, supermarkets and large discount stores. Additionally, there is a growing market for vitamin supplements online.

What Do Studies Say About Multivitamins?

In several recent studies about the effectiveness of multivitamins, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that many people who take these supplements do not escape serious health conditions.

Research that involved 450,000 people found that multivitamins do not reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease. Another study observed the mental functioning of 5,947 men for 12 years. It found that multivitamins did not reduce the risk for cognitive decline, including memory loss and slowed thinking skills. Another study reviewed 1,708 heart attack survivors who took a high-dose multivitamin or placebo pill for up to 55 months. The rate of heart attacks, heart surgeries and deaths between the two groups were the same.

Thus, multivitamins do not appear to help prevent cancer, improve mental function or decrease the risk of heart conditions.

Are Multivitamins Harmful?

While researchers have determined that high doses of certain supplements, such as vitamin E and beta-carotene, can be harmful, multivitamins appear to be low risk and low cost, according to Harvard Health. They may fill in gaps for people who don’t have a diverse enough diet. Multivitamins may be helpful for those who:
»Have a vitamin deficiency. A doctor can run lab tests to discover any vitamin deficiencies.
»Don’t eat enough foods from key food groups that contribute to a healthy diet.
»Have sought professional advice from a dietician who has recommended they take vitamins. Many insurance companies cover dieticians for annual wellness visits.

Healthy Alternatives to Multivitamins

Nutritionists emphasize that pills are not a shortcut to better health. It’s best to eat a healthy diet, maintain a stable weight and reduce intake of sodium, sugar, saturated fat and trans fat. Doctors at Johns Hopkins suggest eating a variety of healthy foods to get the vitamins and minerals needed in a diet.
»Fresh Produce – This includes fruits and vegetables. It is best to eat what is in season and include a variety of colors in a healthy diet. Eat the rainbow! The body needs two or more servings of fruits and vegetables at every meal.
»Whole Grains – These include complex carbohydrates that are naturally high in fiber. They keep the body feeling full and satisfied. Whole grains are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health problems. Try to consume at least three servings daily.
»Low-Fat Dairy – Low-fat and fat-free milk, yogurt and other dairy products are rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium and other nutrients. Three servings of dairy per day is the target amount for adults.
»Protein – Protein should make up between 10% and 35%of a person’s daily caloric intake. It helps build muscles and increases satiety. Animal-based protein, as well as plant-based foods, can be beneficial in a standard diet.

Carefully Weight the Pros and Cons of Multivitamins

Evaluate the positive and potentially negative impacts before taking a multivitamin. Doctors can determine the exact vitamins an individual needs. It is often better to take specific vitamin supplements rather than one multivitamin containing questionable amounts of ingredients. While studies do not confirm that multivitamins are helpful ,they are not generally harmful either. Thus, they can be helpful if used correctly.