The Case for (and Against) Vitamin Supplements

Heart health
Health Articles
June 25, 2018

Do you need to take vitamin supplements? Learn more about the benefits of supplemental vitamins, as well as the questions that are now being asked by members of the scientific community.

It’s one of those things that mothers always tell their kids: eat your greens, do your exercise, and take your vitamins. But is it really the right advice? Could vitamins actually be doing us more harm than good? Let’s explore whether vitamin supplements are all they’re cracked up to be.

The health benefits of vitamins

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 50% of American adults take a vitamin or mineral supplement, a figure that rises to 68% among seniors, defined as people aged 65 or older. In fact, the use of vitamin supplements is so widespread, it has become a $37 billion business, with huge numbers of people all across the country reliant on their supposed health benefits.
So, why are so many people using vitamins? In a nutshell, it’s because of the belief that vitamins are intended to deliver essential nutrients—such as vitamin C, calcium, or iron—that are essential for the body to function. If you live in a developed nation and eat a balanced diet, your diet probably gives you all the vitamins you need. Nevertheless, people with certain health conditions or who have certain restrictions may benefit from vitamin supplements:

  • Vegans (or other people with dietary restrictions) may need to supplement their vitamin intake. Nutrients to focus on include vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, iodine, zinc, calcium, and long-chain omega-3s.
  • People who are born with genetic disorders that interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize vitamin B may require a daily vitamin supplement.
  • People who are born with a condition that interferes with their body’s ability to absorb vitamins (such as Crohn’s disease, chronic diarrhea, or celiac disease) may require vitamin pills.
  • Women who might want to get pregnant may benefit from taking a folic acid supplement, which can help prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida.
  • People who are not regularly exposed to sunlight (for example, those who are bedridden) may benefit from supplemental vitamin D.
  • Those at risk of developing osteoporosis may also benefit from vitamin D supplements.

The case against vitamin supplements

As we’ve explained, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to take vitamin supplements. But despite this, scientists have started to question the status quo regarding the health benefits of vitamins, particularly when it comes to people who don’t actually have any pre-existing health conditions. Tellingly, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force either recommends against the use of vitamin supplements or concludes that the evidence is insufficient to properly assess the health benefits.
It’s not hard to see why certain vitamin supplements may have a reputation that exceeds their actual achievements. In many cases, enthusiastic preliminary studies cause people (including medical professionals) to buy into the hype around certain vitamin supplements. People continue to buy them, even after rigorous studies—most of which take years to complete—find that their health benefits are negligible or based on incorrect assumptions, such as the idea that it’s possible to simply condense the benefits of vitamins and minerals down into one daily pill. To find out more about the limitations of vitamin supplements, a recent New York Times article took an in-depth look at some of the vitamin supplements that have failed to deliver on their promised health benefits.
It’s also important to remember that—for the most part—popular thought around vitamin supplements is based around the idea that people need more vitamins than a regular diet can provide them with. Most people can get all the vitamins they need from a healthy diet. In fact, a significant amount of U.S. produce is already fortified with vitamins, so it’s rare to find someone without a pre-existing health condition who has a serious vitamin deficiency. With milk fortified with vitamin D and flour fortified with vitamin B, most diets include a sufficient amount of vitamins. In addition, it’s possible that taking excessive doses of vitamins could have a negative effect or even kill you. When it comes to vitamins, more doesn’t necessarily mean better.
If you have a legitimate need to take vitamins, you should continue to do. However, the vast majority of people would probably be better off by simply following a nutritious, balanced diet. Alternatively, wait for all the research to come in before you start taking a vitamin supplement that you don’t fully understand.