Stop the Multivitamin Madness

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Holmesvitaminmadness.jpgBy Holly Holmes, M.D., assistant professor, General Internal Medicine

Patients often make an appointment with me to get help reducing the number of drugs they're taking. Because I'm a geriatrician and was a pharmacist, I have a real passion for the appropriate use of medication.

Patients are surprised when, looking through their list, the first thing I suggest dropping is a vitamin. This leads to a lengthy and interesting conversation (sometimes an argument).

Trying to sort out why a patient is taking a multivitamin is a really good starting point to understanding the kinds of goals they have to create and maintain a healthy life. I applaud my patients' desire to really do something to make a change, and I do my best to redirect that positive energy away from multivitamins.

Multivitamin myths

Health care professionals who recommend vitamins are doing a disservice to their patients.

There are two myths that need to be shattered:

  1. The benefit of multivitamins, as touted by the supplement industry, is to promote a healthy lifestyle.
  2. Vitamins do not cause any harm.
However, studies have not been able to prove vitamins, antioxidants or any other supplements given for prevention lead to a reduction in heart disease, cancer or a whole host of other diseases.  

Even more concerning is mounting evidence that some supplements, especially high-dose antioxidants and fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins A and E) can actually cause harm.

The healthy lifestyle that's achieved through a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, along with regular exercise, is the kind of change doctors should be recommending. No supplement has ever been able to reproduce the effect you can achieve through a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables, along with 4-5 days a week of at least 30 minutes of exercise.

Recommended use

Certain groups of people, such as pregnant women, may need supplements. Some people develop low levels of certain vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamins D and B12, as a complication related to aging. For these vitamins, I recommend having your levels checked before committing to a supplement that you may not need.

Ultimately, my recommendation to patients is to throw away those supplements, especially the ones with high doses of antioxidants, and never look back. Plan on eating a wide range of foods -- especially fruits and vegetables -- that are all colors of the rainbow.

Even if you don't like vegetables, don't replace them with a pill. You are not doing yourself any good, and you could be causing yourself harm.

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