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Multivitamins: A multiwaste of money?

A new, large study published earlier this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine  reports that taking a multivitamin offers no benefit in reducing heart disease or common cancers.

If you’re looking for way to save money during this recession, you might want to start by giving up your daily multivitamin.

A new, large study published earlier this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine reports that taking a multivitamin offers no benefit in reducing heart disease or common cancers (breast, ovary, uterine, bladder, stomach and kidney).

Granted, the study involved only women over the age of 50, and most of the participants were relatively well educated and had better-than-average health habits, but the findings were still striking: Not only did multivitamins not protect again heart disease and cancer, they also had no effect on mortality.

In other words, women who took multivitamins didn’t live any longer than their peers who preferred to be supplement-free.

No good evidence

Actually, the finding from this study isn’t all that surprising. Despite the multitude of reports that pop up in the press about this or that vitamin or mineral being necessary to prevent this or that disease, good solid scientific evidence (large randomized clinical trials) showing that taking supplements (as opposed to eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods) makes people healthier simply doesn’t exist. In fact, research has shown that taking particular supplements may actually raise your risk of disease.

Two cases in point: vitamins A and E. Observational studies suggested that taking supplements of these vitamins would benefit the heart. But when the clinical trials rolled around, these supplements were found to actually increase the risk of heart disease.

That’s not to say that certain individuals or groups of people with special nutritional needs don’t benefit from taking specific supplements. If you’re pregnant, for example, taking a folic acid supplement is extremely wise, as it’s been shown to protect babies from birth defects.

But are daily multivitamins vitamins necessary for the rest of us?

You may be surprised to learn that leading health organizations don’t think so. As the authors of this latest study point out, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements has concluded that the evidence is insufficient to support multivitamin use for chronic disease prevention. A similar declaration has been made by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. In addition, the American Cancer Society has nixed the idea of dietary supplements for cancer prevention, and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends against the use of antioxidant supplements for warding off heart disease. (The AHA is silent on the topic of multivitamins.)

A huge price tag

Multivitamins are a multibillion-dollar industry, which may explain why people think they need them. Middle-aged baby boomers, particularly women, make up a major chunk of the 50 percent of the American population who regularly take dietary supplements. The annual cost of those supplements is about $20 billion. More than one-third of that amount is spent on multivitamins.

That’s a lot of money for something that may or may not be beneficial to our health.

More studies (those all-important randomized clinical trials) are needed, of course, before anyone can say definitively that multivitamins are a waste of money for otherwise healthy people. One such study on men is underway, but it won’t be completed until 2012.

In the meantime, why not get your vitamins and minerals the one universally accepted way: by eating your fruits and veggies. Lots of them. And often.