Vitamins: Debunking the Myths

Once upon a time, you believed in the tooth fairy. You counted on the stability of housing prices and depended on bankers to be, well, dependable. And you figured that taking vitamins was good for you. Oh, it’s painful when another myth gets shattered. Recent research suggests that a daily multi is a waste of money for most people—and there’s growing evidence that some other old standbys may even hurt your health. Here’s what you need to know.

MYTH:

A MULTIVITAMIN CAN MAKE UP FOR A BAD DIET

Are multivitamins bad?

An insurance policy in a pill? If only it were so

Last year, researchers published new findings from the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term study of more than 160,000 midlife women. The data showed that multivitamin-takers are no healthier than those who don’t pop the pills, at least when it comes to the big diseases—cancer, heart disease, stroke. “Even women with poor diets weren’t helped by taking a multivitamin,” says study author Marian Neuhouser, PhD, in the cancer prevention program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle.

Vitamin supplements came into vogue in the early 1900s, when it was difficult or impossible for most people to get a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. Back then, vitamin-deficiency diseases weren’t unheard-of: the bowed legs and deformed ribs of rickets (caused by a severe shortage of vitamin D) or the skin problems and mental confusion of pellagra (caused by a lack of the B vitamin niacin). But these days, you’re extremely unlikely to be seriously deficient if you eat an average American diet, if only because many packaged foods are vitamin-enriched. Sure, most of us could do with a couple more daily servings of produce, but a multi doesn’t do a good job at substituting for those. “Multivitamins have maybe two dozen ingredients—but plants have hundreds of other useful compounds,” Neuhouser says. “If you just take a multivitamin, you’re missing lots of compounds that may be providing benefits.”

That said, there is one group that probably ought to keep taking a multivitamin: women of reproductive age. The supplement is insurance in case of pregnancy. A woman who gets adequate amounts of the B vitamin folate is much less likely to have a baby with a birth defect affecting the spinal cord. Since the spinal cord starts to develop extremely early—before a woman may know she’s pregnant—the safest course is for her to take 400 micrograms of folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) daily. And a multi is an easy way to get it.

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