Science, Now + Beyond

Vitamins or no vitamins: it’s really up to you

Doctors and studies tend to be in consensus– unless you have a vitamin deficiency, taking a multivitamin provides little to no health benefits.

In the era of the Internet, it’s easy to do a quick Google search and find the answers you want to the questions you have. A friend recently recommended that I look into taking vitamin B12 supplements after he heard me complaining about feeling fatigued even after getting a full night’s sleep. So I turned to Google and voila: an array of articles singing the anti-exhaustion praises of a list of vitamins, including vitamin B12, like this one

But forever the daughter of a doctor, I was skeptical. So I dug a little deeper.

woman saying sat with friend puts her hand up and turns to her phone, caption "I'm gonna look that up"
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There is a huge market for vitamins and it’s only growing, a 2015 report showed, with China being the largest producer and consumer of vitamins. Between 2007 and 2017, the market for vitamins around the world has almost doubled in size, growing from about $18 billion USD to $30 billion USD, according to The Statistics Portal.

But along with a growing market for dietary supplements also comes a growing list of research showing evidence that multivitamins don’t do anything for you, and in some cases can even be harmful. Doctors and studies tend to be in consensus– unless you have a vitamin deficiency, taking a multivitamin provides little to no health benefit.

In fact, if your intake of certain vitamins is too high, you might be causing yourself more harm than good. Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and vitamin A are all associated with higher mortality rates, especially for those who smoke. Further reason to take caution when it comes to vitamins is that regulations of multivitamins are lax, making it difficult to know exactly what vitamins or minerals are present in the pills you’re taking. This can be dangerous if taken in combination with other medication.

We’re told that it’s best to get our vitamins from food, but nutritionists say that it’s not just about what food we eat but also how we eat it. The combination of spinach and orange juice, for example, causes a chemical reaction that makes it easier for your body to absorb the iron from the spinach. Eating some vegetables raw, like broccoli, is a better way to absorb their nutrients. Whereas cooking vegetables, like tomatoes, actually increase their nutritional value. It’s best to dress your salad in oil in order to absorb the fat-soluble nutrients that leafy greens offer.

The way you eat your food also depends on which nutrients you’re looking for, as the different ways of consuming them may increase the availability of one type of nutritional benefit while decreasing the availability of another.  

The aspect of vitamin consumption that I find most interesting is that people know the real health benefits of supplementary vitamins are questionable, and yet we still take multivitamins without a doctor’s recommendation. Maybe it’s because we’re science skeptics, or maybe it’s because we’re desperate to cure whatever ailment we’re facing, and taking a vitamin is easy and makes us feel that at least we’re doing something.

Man talking to friend and emphasizing through head movements, caption: This is what the body wants"
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It’s not quite the placebo effect, which is the body and mind’s response to a non-treatment. For example, if a doctor gives you a pill that she says will make your stomach pain go away, and it does– except the pill she gave you was a sugar pill with no active ingredients. The placebo effect is powerful because it works. While there might not be any true biological changes from a “false” treatment, the placebo effect results in you feeling better.

The placebo effect, however, is documented as the body’s response to being given a treatment from a doctor. So deciding to buy some vitamins at your local drug store doesn’t exactly fall into placebo effect territory.

But at the end of the day, people continue to take vitamins to feel better or at least to feel healthier, and to some extent, it must be working. It’s up to you to decide whether dietary supplements are a worthwhile use of your money, but unless you’re taking vitamins in excessive amounts, popping a multivitamin with your morning coffee doesn’t pose any major health risks. 

Kevin from The Office being forced to eat broccoli with caption "Eat it, eat it"
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So make sure you eat your veggies before your vitamins. I, however, might just try out vitamin B12 and see what happens.

  • Paulina Rowe

    Recent graduate and Real World novice from the University of Connecticut with BAs in Psychology and Spanish. Current Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Colombia. Interested in working towards education and gender equality.