Who Should Take Vitamins: The Latest Research

Vitamins are so hot right now – Vitamin water, vitamin-infused coffee and even a vitamin shower head (yes, it’s a thing). Everyone seems to be looking for a way to increase those micronutrients in their life. 

In an age where we are bombarded by messaging from makers of “healthy living” and “wellness” products, more vitamins must be a good thing, right?

Although almost 40% of Americans take vitamins (a $28B industry), research is increasingly showing that vitamin intake (beyond what you get in a balanced diet), is of little to no benefit to your health.

Consider this study that just came out. Physician researchers laid bare many of the claims of vitamin supplements, and found them lacking in evidence that they support cardiovascular health in any meaningful way. These studies have been coming out for years. In 2013, the Annals of Internal Medicine published multiple studies that showed no benefit of supplemental vitamins, and a physician editorial proclaimed, Enough is enough. Stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements!”

It’s often been postulated that vitamins which carry antioxidant properties neutralize the harmful effects of “free radicals” – molecules that wreak havoc on our body causing cancers and blood clots. Dr. Kenneth Cooper of the Cooper Center in Dallas, Texas has long advocated vitamin supplementation for this reason, and discounts the findings of current studies saying they are flawed because researchers didn’t measure the level of vitamins in the bloodstream.

Dr. Cooper: “I believe that in order to practice responsible medicine, we cannot make a broad based statement about vitamins. If every American ate between five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day, we would not need additional vitamin supplementation. However, because the average American adult eats 3.1 servings of fruits and vegetables and the average teenager gets 1.6 servings, levels of vitamins in the blood can be low and supplementation becomes necessary. While we can never replace a good diet, I continue to recommend vitamins as insurance for people who don’t follow the recommended daily serving of fruit and vegetables.

So there’s no reason for you to spend money on that B12 shot. But, there are some practical applications of a few vitamins in select circumstances:

  1. In women who may become pregnant, supplementation with Folic Acid (folate) is strongly recommended.  Folate prevents spina bifida in the growing fetus, and is of the most benefit in the first month of pregnancy, often before confirmation of pregnancy has even occurred.
  2. Vitamin D in the elderly has reduced fractures which can often occur in falls. Since this population is more prone to falls, supplementation is recommended.

Wait, so that’s it?  I don’t need B12 shots or 4 fish oil capsules a day? Nah.  

In fact, in healthy adults, even testing for vitamin blood levels is only recommended if there is a suspicion of vitamin deficiency.  Like patients with anemia who may need to be tested for B12 deficiency or someone with osteoporosis who may be tested for Vitamin D deficiency.  The two indications I listed above are the only scientifically-proven (via randomized controlled trials) situations in which healthy people need supplemental vitamins. 

So, save your money. Eat more veggies.  And if you’re a woman who may get pregnant, take folic acid.