Are multivitamins good for you?
News stories have reported that taking a multivitamin could be a waste of money when it comes to heart health. We look behind the headlines.
Research has found that taking a multivitamin doesn’t reduce your risk of heart and circulatory problems.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to nutrition - supplements are not a replacement for healthy food
The large study looked at the risk of coronary heart disease (including heart attacks), as well as strokes, and the risk of death due to any heart and circulatory conditions. Although there was some variation between studies, overall the research showed there was no benefit in taking multivitamins when it comes to heart and circulatory conditions.
The researchers said: “Our study supports current professional guidelines that recommend against the routine use of multivitamin and mineral supplements for the purpose of cardiovascular disease prevention in the general population.”
The British Heart Foundation view
Victoria Taylor, BHF Nutrition Lead, said: “There are no shortcuts when it comes to nutrition - supplements are not a replacement for healthy food.
"You might be prescribed a vitamin or mineral supplement by a health professional for other reasons, but we do not recommend people take multivitamins to help prevent heart and circulatory diseases. This review supports our position.
“Rather than taking multivitamins, focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet which includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, fish and unsaturated fats like olive oil. We know that this can help to lower our risk of heart and circulatory diseases.”
Was the research reliable?
It’s important to note that this wasn’t a new experiment, but an analysis of 18 existing studies that were published between January 1970 and August 2016. The studies that were included were all assessed and deemed high-quality.
This analysis included more than two million (2,019,862) people. The follow-up period was quite long, 11.6 years, making the results more reliable.
The results were adjusted to factor in the participants’ fruit and vegetable intake, smoking habits, and physical activity
The researchers also made sure the results were adjusted to factor in the participants’ fruit and vegetable intake, smoking habits, and physical activity, so we know that these things didn’t cause the results they found.
A weakness of this analysis is that only five of these 18 studies specified the dose or type of supplement that the participants took. Also, the definition of multivitamin and mineral supplements varied among the studies that were included.
The researchers defined multivitamin and mineral supplements as dietary supplements made up of more than three vitamin and mineral ingredients.
A strength of this research was that the participants were from multiple countries (USA, France, Sweden, Germany, and Japan), though no participants were from the UK.
Was the media coverage accurate?
The story was widely covered, including in The Sun, the Daily Mail, The Independent, and The Telegraph.
Most of the coverage was careful not to imply that multivitamins themselves are harmful, but that it could mean that people neglect other areas of their health, and that unhealthy habits – such as smoking – could cause harm. But the weaknesses of the study were not in general mentioned by the media.
The coverage did advocate 'eating more fruit and vegetables, exercising and avoiding tobacco'
The Sun’s headline was ‘VITAMIN RISK Taking vitamins ‘WON’T protect against heart attacks or stroke – and could do more harm than good’’. This suggests the vitamins themselves are risky and could cause harm. But the researchers said that “multivitamin and mineral supplements taken in moderation rarely cause direct harm”.
The story also claimed that multivitamins and minerals “could do some elderly people more harm than good’. The research did say that “several studies demonstrated that routine vitamin and mineral supplementation in certain populations, for instance in elderly patients, could lead to a worse outcome.” But it is important to note that this refers to taking multivitamins routinely, not those which have been prescribed.
But the coverage did also advocate ‘eating more fruit and vegetables, exercising and avoiding tobacco’, which is helpful and is in line with our advice.