Vitamin Supplements: Worthless or Essential?

Not too long ago experts were urging us to take vitamin supplements since we don’t get enough nutrition from the foods we consume. Now the latest studies claim that supplements do nothing for our health. What are we to believe?

Citing results from studies without providing the actual context for the studies doesn’t prove anything. It’s like a sciency version of gossip.

To say “supplements do nothing for our health” stands out as an absurd overstatement in the absence of context. If you have anemia due to vitamin B12 deficiency, you need to take a supplement. The same would be true for any condition that is a consequence of a nutrient inadequacy.

I will repeat what I usually say when asked about the value of supplements: you should only take them when prescribed.

The notion that healthy people benefit from taking multivitamins as a stop-gap measure (“insurance” for not always eating well) originated with pharmaceutical companies. There is no evidence of harm in doing this, but since these people are already healthy, there is also no evidence of benefit.

From Janet McKenzie’s answer to Are vitamins a scam?

Many multivitamin brands are made by pharmaceutical companies. For example, Centrum vitamins are made by Pfizer. Bayer makes One-A-Day.

Pharmaceutical companies are very adept at marketing their products, making you think you need them but being careful not to over-promise. The usual ad for multivitamins promotes the idea that you might not be getting enough vitamins (or minerals) from your diet. Taking these pills is supposed to protect you by providing the recommended daily amount of these essential nutrients. A daily multivitamin is presented like an insurance policy – just in case. No promises are made about improved health, merely the opportunity to avoid worsening health.

So, multivitamins are not a scam, they are simply unnecessary for many people. My chief objection to them is that people use them as an excuse for maintaining bad eating habits.

This article originally appeared as my answer to a question on Quora.