Vitamin supplements good for health?

Originally Published: October 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 16, 2010
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Dear Alice:

Almost every place that I go to, I see stores and stores just devoted to selling vitamins and more vitamins, and I was wondering what the benefits are of a normal healthy person taking vitamins daily. Are there any risks for a normal healthy person who doesn't take vitamins? Will the person taking vitamins' health be improved or have longer longevity? Will the person not taking any vitamins be as healthy as the person who is taking them? And also what will happen if a person takes more than he or she should consume everyday?

Health Enthusiast

Dear Health Enthusiast,

More than half of American adults take dietary supplements, but it's not clear how much folks actually benefit from them. Generally speaking, a balanced and reasonably varied diet supplies all the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy. Some health experts do recommend a daily multivitamin as a nutritional "insurance policy"; just don't expect life-changing results.

One recommended path to good nutrition is to follow the food pyramid. If you are eating well, there is often no need to take supplements to stay healthy. However, many people do not eat a balanced or "reasonably varied" diet. In this case, a daily multivitamin may help one meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of important vitamins and minerals. For people with nutrient deficiencies or certain conditions, supplements are more of a necessity. For example, people with anemia benefit from iron supplements and extra folic acid is recommended during pregnancy to prevent certain birth defects.

If you choose to take a multivitamin, or another supplement, be careful not to overdo it. Many vitamins are water-soluble, so any surplus is flushed out through urine. On the other hand, excess amounts of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, D, and K) can actually be harmful to your body. For instance, too much vitamin D can cause nausea, constipation, heart trouble, and kidney stones.

People take dietary supplements hoping for various health benefits, but many of these claims are simply false. Here's a look at some common "myths" about vitamins:

  • "Vitamins ward off cancer and heart disease." It's difficult to sort out the positive effects of vitamin supplements from other health-promoting behaviors like low-fat diets and exercise. For now, there is simply not enough evidence to back up these claims. Two recent long-term studies refute the disease-fighting powers of multivitamins for women and vitamins C and E for men.
  • "Vitamins give you energy." Actually, vitamins do not provide any calories for energy. They provide no extra pep or vitality beyond normal expectations, nor do they provide unusual levels of well being.
  • "Vitamin supplements protect against harmful chemicals and pollution." Unfortunately, vitamins have no special ability to ward off harmful environmental agents.
  • "Vitamin supplements are necessary because our soil is so depleted." In reality, crops can't grow in depleted soil. If a nutrient is low in the soil, the yield will be low, but the crop's vitamin content will be normal.

If you have questions about your individual nutritional needs or want to get more advice about taking vitamin supplements, talk with a health care provider. Students at Columbia can make an appointment with a nutritionist at Primary Care Medical Services (PCMS) by calling x4-2284 or logging on to Open Communicator. For more online information about vitamin safety and benefits, check out these resources:

USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center

American Dietetic Association

Linus Pauling Institute: Micronutrient Research for Optimum Health

The Nutrition Source from the Harvard School of Public Health

Even though many people take supplements, there's no reason you have to hop on the vitamin train if you're eating a well balanced diet, and as always, good information is some of the best medicine!