Taking Vitamins? You Probably Shouldn’t Be, Doctors Say

By Breanna Draxler | December 18, 2013 11:53 am


“Take your vitamins” has long been a mantra of mothers everywhere. Now, researchers say vitamins and supplements are not only unnecessary, but in some cases may actually be bad for your health.

Today more than half of Americans take a multivitamin or supplement of some sort. But five doctors call the benefits of this practice into question in an editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They sum up the results of three different vitamin studies included in the most recent issue of the journal.

The Head and the Heart

Researchers in one study followed the heart health of 1,700 patients who had previously suffered heart attacks. Half were given a daily multivitamin and half were given a placebo. Over the course of 5 years, researchers tracked the cardiovascular health of these patients. A good number of the participants dropped out, which makes the results less conclusive, but of those men and women that remained in the study, researchers found no real difference between the two groups’ likelihood of having another hearth attack.

A second study was designed to see if vitamins played any role in preventing cognitive declines associated with aging. Of the nearly 6,000 male doctors aged 65 or older who participated in the 12-year study, half took vitamins and half took a placebo. When researchers tested patients’ brain functions (such as verbal memory, a strong predictor of Alzheimer’s) they found comparable outcomes between the two groups.

The third study discussed in the editorial was a meta-analysis of 400,000 patients from 26 different studies, which examined the effects of various vitamins on the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mortality in general. These results, too, showed no real benefit from the vitamins.

In some cases the outcomes have actually been negative rather than neutral. The editorial cites recent studies of beta-carotene that showed an increased risk of death in patients with lung cancer. Similarly with vitamin E, supplements increased participants’ risk of premature death.

No Need for Vitamins

Steven Salzberg, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, told NPR,

“It seems reasonable that if a little bit of something is good for you, then more should be better for you. It’s not true. Supplementation with extra vitamins or micronutrients doesn’t really benefit you if you don’t have a deficiency.”

That’s because most of us today aren’t trying to ward off scurvy. Micronutrient deficiencies were common a century ago, but better nutrition and vitamin-fortified foods mean that most Americans no longer have to worry about rickets or goiters.

The editorial does point out a few exceptions. Vitamin D, for example, may help prevent elderly people from falling. According to NPR,

Now when public health officials talk about vitamin deficiencies and health, they’re talking about specific populations and specific vitamins. Young women tend to be low on iodine, which is key for brain development in a fetus… and Mexican-American women and young children are more likely to be iron deficient. But even in that group, we’re talking about 11 percent of the children, and 13 percent of the women.

Those groups aside, however, the editorial argues that the case against vitamins is closed. As one of the doctor-authors, Dr. Edgar Miller from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told CBS, “There is really no evidence of benefit and there is evidence of harm. Our recommendation is don’t waste your money.”

Image credit:  JIANG HONGYAN/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
  • templeruins

    So a study on a few hundred people, taking one type of “multivitamin” and these researchers claim “the case is closed”? What exactly was scientific about this anyway? There’s no mention of the numerous variables involved here in the vitamin and the patients and just about a hundred other things. This is another publicity study by alleged scientists looking for headlines. It worked. The whole tone of the researchers speaks of an pre held bias and agenda. Be extremely sceptical of these absolute claim studies.

    • Chris

      exactly!! as well as no LONG TERM testing….on ANYTHING. zero products we put in our bodies, on our bodies aren’t tested for decades….we’re lucky if they are tested for a year. Cancers sometimes take decades to develop prior to being noticed. Just bc it doesn’t affect you now, doesn’t mean it’s safe. “We’re all going to die anyways someday….” is THE STUPIDEST THING IVE EVER HEARD.

    • bertinanth764

      my Aunty Elena got a real nice Porsche
      Boxster by working off of a computer… Read Full Report J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Ian McGrumpy

    These studies ASSUME that test subjects eat a healthy balanced diet. Most people do not.

  • wilma santos

    wilma santos

  • Buddy199

    But putting millions of children on ADHD drugs is healthy.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      King of the Hill has some phenomenal material regarding over-aggressive diagnosis.

  • hunterson

    Niacin has been shown in double blind studies to significantly help cholesterol issues. Large doses of vitamin D has been shown to help with multiple health issues. Folic acid is prescribed to treat blood disorders.
    Meta studeis are often dubious, and all too often agenda driven. Most anti-vitamin studies have been shown to be desigend to get negative vitamin results.
    We tolerate massive over medication of anti-biotiocs. Same for psycho-active drugs. And shall we discuss insanely expensive chemo therapies (that seldom work and inflict massive patient suffering) I think the obsession big pharma sponsored research ahs against vitamins is worth studying in itself- for rent seeking, bias confirmation and noble cause corruption.

  • Rolando Quijada Belocora

    How about Pharmaton it is safe to take,please reply.

  • Jim Sylvester

    I don’t know if this study reflects the researchers’ ignorance or their blind faith. Niacin is used to control cholesterol levels, as well as anxiety and depression. It also improves the mental health of schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome in many cases. Vitamin C increased overall well-being and reduces the risk of all types of cancer. And the list goes on.

    The paradigm in medicine is beginning to shift in favor of using vitamins to treat or alleviate many of our common illnesses. Vitamins are “Nature’s tonic,” the natural way to better health, and therefore can’t be patented and sold at huge profits.

  • ChuKo

    This is the usual deceptive anti-vitamin propaganda. The anti-bashing arguments and “scientific studies” are little more than distortions of the true facts. The medical orthodoxy, along with their sponsored mass media, have been telling the public distortions and lies about the benefits of supplements for decades. Just see how widely this “news” has been broadcast by the popular media, unlike positive news on vitamins. And they do it not just blatantly but by intentionally designing scientific “studies” to fail vitamins.

    The propaganda culture never stop spewing out disinformation on supplements so most people believe this misinformation instead of checking things out a bit more for themselves. For a worthwhile article revealing many of this misleading hype by both the popular media and the medical establishment google/bing “2 Big Lies: No Vitamin Benefits & Supplements Are Very Dangerous by Rolf Hefti”

  • Jordan

    Vitamins cannot absorb from their pill form and are often excreted before any of the vitamins even reach your blood stream. PhytOriginal is the
    ONLY LIVING marine source of Omega-3 available in the US. It is bathed
    in a vitamin rich brine water that is kept refrigerated and living.
    The result is rapid absorption. I have taken fish pills for years and I
    now know it was a waste of money. PhytOriginal is like eating the most
    powerful vegetable in the ocean.

  • Ryan111

    This seems to be another case of misconception as to the purpose of multivitamins. While it’s true that mega dosing on vitamins will not cure or prevent any diseases, the fact remains that most people are not, by any measure, “well-nourished” to the extent that they are receiving all the essential micronutrients required by the body.

    As far as what to expect: Always look for USP verified seal, it expires after 1 year and requires re-testing of the product again to verify the formula contents and whether it will actually dissolve fast enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream. USP is regulated by the FDA, so while the FDA does not regulate supplements directly, those who submit for USP verification are subject to the same standards of testing. Vegetarians in particular are missing critical micronutrients in their diet, and a multivitamin helps to supplement their diet with those missing vitamins and minerals. Very few people are actually receiving every possible nutrient they need from their diet, and the stress alone from such meticulous planning would be equally unhealthy.

    So unless you regularly get clinical assessments, you won’t possibly know whether or not you are receiving optimal levels of nutrients in your diet; hence taking a USP verified multivitamin can help to ensure that you receive any critical micronutrients that your body may be missing, and that they’re at optimal levels.

  • gendotte

    Maybe for some, but I have to take vitamins of all kinds, since I can’t digest enough to live. But my blood tests all come back well within range, so talk to your Doc before you do anything stupid

  • jack trotter, md

    it is routine to suggest a “one a day womens vitamin with Iron, vit d and calcium to adolescent girls as they start menses” , this does not seem to be addressed

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com James Logan

    Linus Pauling was considered a “Quack” for suggesting that a higher dose of Vitamin C can help your body. Your body will expell the Vitamin C that it doesn’t use.
    Its true that Vitamins A D E K can accumulate and MAY cause some problems [ after mega doses for years], However, with all the Junk food that the obese American public eats, a multivitamin makes more sense than not taking one.
    Doctors are quick to deny the benefit of MANY drugs that they can’t write a prescription for. Because you have to make another office visit to renew that prescription. That is called job security [ for the MD] and the BUISNESS of medicine.

  • Carl Maurer

    This article is lacking in detail. How about citing some examples of specific cases where there were negative affects? Your generalized statements followed by quotes from doctors with the word “Johns Hopkins” after their name are not going to convince me of anything. Personally, I notice positive changes in my own body while taking good quality, well researched supplements. My energy levels are up, my mood is better, I am more focused and get sick less often. It will take a lot more than a couple of lame statements to get me to stop taking my vitamins. Articles like this with sweeping definitive declarations and nothing to back them up are just irresponsible journalism. Disappointed in Discover for this one.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Robert Bullardrr

    After almost 15 years of statins, a rather low fat diet and marginal benefits, I switched to dietary supplements (red rice yeast, policosanol, etc.) and a multi-grain enriched oatmeal blend for most morning meals. At six months I had achieved for the first time in 15 years all cholesterol variables within the normal ranges, even with some lessening of the fat limitations of my daily diets.

    We are all different and we change as we age. Think of it as Holden Caulfield’s roommate: Say your prayers, just in case God may be listening; take your dietary supplements, just in case you may have a latent need.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Doug Edmondson

    There are 100’s of studies showing the benefits of different minerals on the body. Dr. Linus Pauling, the two-time Nobel Prize winner, said “you can trace every sickness, every disease, and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.” It has also been shown that much of our food today is lacking essential trace minerals. Even if we are eating healthy, it’s no guarantee that we’re getting the nutrients we need for optimal health. I agree with many of the comments posted and this article in no way changed my opinion on the benefits of taking HIGH QUALITY supplements.

  • Marilou Brewer

    It takes 75 bowls of spinach to get the same amount of vitamins that you got in 1 bowl in 1947. You do the math. Our soils are depleted. Chemical vitamins don’t work. You seriously think these studies were done with food source vitamins? Honestly?

    • Mike H

      That old iron number was actually a typo.
      Look it up.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Kara Donohue

    These comments suggest many of you don’t trust scientists publishing in scientific journals, but you do trust the billion dollar supplement industry that is almost completely unregulated. There are several studies showing Vitamin C supplements do not do you any good (unless you’re a sailor a couple hundred years ago on a ship with no citrus). There are several studies on the lack of health benefits from multivitamins. Despite people having poor diets, there is a low percentage of people with deficiencies. These deficient people may require vitamin supplements, but most of us do get what we need from food. Check out Paul Offit’s Do You Believe in Magic? Eye opening. Just because it’s “natural” doesn’t make it safe. Cyanide is natural.

  • Gary Carkeek

    “…likelihood of having another hearth attack” You don’t look at the mantelpiece when you’re stoking the fire lol

  • ZenGeekDad

    Such studies and opinions as these help refine our understanding of optimizing health. Three big areas of potential impact are indeed cardio, cancer, and cognition. But no one who follows health news is surprised to learn that standard vitamin supplements do not improve cardio outcomes, and the cancer & cognitive findings almost as expected. (The bottomline message though is worth noting: “once deficiency is avoided, more is not necessarily better.”)
    But, the bigger unanswered questions relate to quality of life. For example, the modest B complex I take daily boosts my mental energy (alertness, ambition, etc.) as obviously to me as a cup of coffee does to most. (I can’t do coffee/tea/soda/energy drinks, so I notice these subtle effects far more-so than the average person.) I’ve also read elsewhere that nominal vitamin supplements have been found to modestly improve classroom performance and standardized test scores in children with less than ideal eating habits. (How many kids do you know who have ideal eating habits?)
    Other quality of life measures worth serious evaluation include: mood/depression, immune system robustness (and the flip side: auto-immune disorders), sleep quality, weight control/metabolism, and geriatric system function such as vision (macular generation/cataracts/etc.), urinary (prostate/etc.), and musculoskeletal health (frequency/severity of injury).
    Minerals seem to be lumped in with vitamins in these discussions, and the benefits of Ca/Mg/D supplementation on bone health seems anything but “case closed: no benefit.” (And bear in mind breaking a hip is often fatal for the elderly, due to bed-ridden atrophy.)
    Most supplements people take today (by dollars invested, at least) are not the literal vitamins, but are the attempts to isolate the latest fad phyto-wonder (resveratrol, etc.). Here the research on cost-benefit is more needed: the risks are higher, and the potential benefits are too (however rarely they might be delivered). Again, the claims to be tested are disparate: be smarter, studlier, stronger, trimmer, more energetic, youthful, etc. Not much mention of that perrential study favorite: cardiovascular outcomes! (Though it does show up sometimes.)
    Our health research communities need a Deep Think on how to shift differently for data patterns that answer these more varied and evanescent promises(/risks). I don’t know yet what that new mode is. Big data? Not post NSA, it seems. And any comsumer opt-in data-cast (e.g., via an iPhone app) raises concerns about bias, and tampering by vested interest. Nonetheless, this is where the big returns are now, ladies & gents. Focus on that, please.

  • Larry


    Most Americans have multibile parasites feeding in their bodies.

    Most Americans eat crappy meals, deficient of vitamins & minerals.

    Millions of Americans are on Welfare & Food Stamps!

    Not to put too fine a point on it, Americans are unhealthy!

    All vacant lots in inner cities should be turned into Urban vegatable gardens!

    Children & teens should be educated how to grow food to eat.

    Drop a bunch of subjects on curriculums & introduce subjects that will sustain people for life.


  • Dan Raikov

    In 2010 zero deaths were reported from taking vitamins.

    Of course it does not prove anything, because it was not a clinical trial (and therefore cannot be rigged by drug companies).

    Vitamins/ other natural supplements exist in the food we eat and the plants we grow. The drug companies cannot patent this. What they want is to drive supplements out of existence and then say “oh, look what we found, let’s patent it”. Then they will have a monopoly and will be able to extort the general public. Yes, that sounds like something a drug company would do.

    One highly flawed study saying vitamin E is dangerous, is a death knell. When the difference was not statistically significant. Yet many studies that show benefits of natural, non-synthetic vitamin E are ignored.

    Need I even say that the vitamin E in the study was derived from petroleum (and, still, showed no statistically significant danger)?

  • Jeremy

    This study brought to you by the pharmaceutical industry. Big Pharma: We Got a Pill for That!

  • sab1053

    The problem is that all the studies were conducted with synthetic vitamins. No study used whole food based and 100% natural vitamins. Synthetics lack cofactors that are needed by the body to totally utilize the vitamin. The body knows the difference. When a synthetic Vitamin is consumed without the proper cofactors the body will search else where to pull these co factors from other vitamins, making these vitamins less effective. Folic acid can be dangerous while folate is not. Don’t take folic acid. Take folate. So, vitamins can make you sick if they are synthetic. Yet vitamins are not the only thing people need. They need minerals, amino acids enzymes and so on.
    Doctors are vitamin illiterate. When they prescribe Vitamin D for example, they fail to explain what else the body needs to assimilate this extra Vitamin D. Vitamin D will deplete Vitamin C, Boron and Magnesium. If you’re going to consume Vitamin D, then the doctor should recommend more Vitamin C, boron and magnesium. This is true for all vitamins. Without sufficient magnesium, calcium will not be properly absorbed and will be drawn from the bones into the bones. This will accelerate atherosclerosis, for example.
    Mega doses of vitamins can be dangerous, so more is not always better. Functional Medicine Doctors will order tests that will determine what vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids the individual body needs. It’s not one size fits all. Then there are gut issues. If the gut is weak, the immune system is weak and no matter how many vitamins you take, the gut will be unable to absorb them. Many degenerative diseases can be cured when mineral and vitamin defficiencies are resolved with a health gut. This study was cursory at best.

  • Mike Ericson

    please people, do get a check of your urine to see how much vitamin C you are excreting after your supplement, you do known what Linus Pauling and his wife died from… a hundred years ago you would have been told to arsenic an mercury take less than a 100 years ago… eat a balanced diet with all the phytonutrients and skip the multivitamins, there are no shortcuts


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