The Multifaceted Nature of Multivitamins - Multitasking Week

By Nicole Stinson

Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo.

Multi-tasking our health with multivitamins has been the time effective way of supplementing our diets in our busy day-to-day schedules. According to research by Consumer Reports more than 50 percent of Americans use vitamin supplements but health experts are divided on their usefulness and some are even warning that they may do more harm than good. With “experts” and even the media arguing both for and against multivitamins, whom do we believe?

Manufacturers of these multivitamins over the years have produced convincing advertisements telling us that multivitamins are essential to a healthy lifestyle and something that our bodies “need”.

Judy Blatman, a representative from The Council for Responsible Nutrition, tells BTR, “most people are not eating a healthy balanced diet, despite best efforts and a multivitamin can help fill nutrient gaps”.

“Multivitamins are extremely safe and do not cause a danger to a person’s health,” she says.

Interestingly, The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), which may have at first appeared neutral, represents over 140 companies that supply and manufacture ingredients in the dietary supplementary industry including The Juice Plus+ Company, Country Life Vitamins, Pfizer’s Centrum and internationally, the company Blackmore Ltd in the Asia-Pacific.

Earlier this year The New York Times reported ‘Don’t Take Your Vitamins’ citing studies that linked vitamin supplements to cancer and death. The writer, Paul Offit, the Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine spoke with BTR.

“Many people believe that taking multivitamins will decrease their chances of cancer or other diseases; there is no evidence of this,” he says. “There are actually studies that suggest that it increases your chances.”

While regular multivitamins might not be that risky, mega multivitamins have excess quantities of vitamins and can be up to five times the recommended amount. People do not realize how dangerous this can be, he explains.

David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University, agrees saying, “an excess of any given vitamin or mineral can potentially do harm on its own, and may do further harm by creating imbalance in our metabolism”.

“I used to recommend multis routinely. I now do so selectively,” Katz tells BTR.

Excessive intake of vitamins A, D, E and K have been known to cause problems says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University. Too much vitamin A can lead to anorexia, fatigue, nausea, and increases risks of osteoporosis in older women. The condition known as hypervitaminosis A can also lead to death in extreme cases, usually from excess consumption of vitamin A supplements.

Although rare, overdosing on vitamin K can lead to liver damage and cause brain damage in babies. More common are side effects such as anemia and nausea.

Offit, despite his arguments against vitamin supplementation, tells BTR that vitamin K injections for newborn babies can be beneficial, as it is known to strengthen bones and assist the body in blood clotting at a healthy level.

Photo courtesy of meaduva.

So are multivitamins really that dangerous? The verdict is probably not, but moderation is important.

Daniel Fabricant, director of the Division of Dietary Supplements at The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tells BTR that multivitamins companies like to promise a lot and it is important to talk to your physician about why you want to use the product. It is very much a case-to-case basis especially with individuals with pre-existing medical conditions and women who are pregnant.

“We would step-in if we though a company was making a multivitamin that was unsafe,” he says.

Even the CRN representative, Blatman admits there is always some risk and advises moderation. “You can take or do too much of anything,” she says. “With vitamins, you can get these nutrients from food and supplements and it’s important to pay attention to how much you are getting from all sources.”

The health experts, who were not pro-multivitamins, also agree that it is difficult to overdose on most vitamins. It would require taking more than the recommended amount on the packaging.

“Supplements may not do much good but they also don’t usually do much harm,” says Marion Nestle. As for multivitamins’ effectiveness Nestle and Offit remain unconvinced.

“I’m not aware of convincing evidence that multivitamins make healthy people healthier,” Nestle says.

“They definitely make for expensive urine,” Offit tells BTR.

However, previous studies suggest that the act of taking the multivitamin may have more of an effect than the multivitamin, itself. Studies by the National Institutes of Health and CRN found that people who took multivitamins also paid more attention to their nutritional habits and lifestyle than those who did not take multivitamins.

“For those few who are actually eating a healthy balanced diet, some choose not to take a multivitamin, but others see it as a smart practice, and an affordable and convenient insurance policy for good health,” says Judy Blatman.

Multivitamins may not have the desired effect that we are led to believe in the commercials but evidence suggests they are by no means harmful. If anything, they assure us that, should we forget to eat right every once in a while, at least we are getting our recommended vitamins for the day. Even though our toilet might be getting them too.