- Most vitamins do not improve our health, recent research has concluded.
- A new review of more than 100 studies found no evidence that people who take the most popular vitamins have a lower risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, or early death from any cause.
- That includes multivitamins, vitamins C and D, and calcium.
- A tiny number of supplements are exceptions to this rule, such as folic acid for pregnant women. Read on to find out which supplements you should take and avoid.
It seems like simple, obvious advice: Eat your vegetables, get some exercise, and — of course — take your vitamins.
Decades of research has failed to find substantial evidence that vitamins and supplements do any significant good. In fact, recent studies skew in the opposite direction, finding that certain vitamins may be bad for you.
Several supplements have been linked with an increase in certain cancers, for example, while others have been associated with a rise in the risk of kidney stones. Still others have been linked with an overall higher risk of death from any cause.
So here are the vitamins and supplements you should take — and the ones you should avoid.
Multivitamins: Skip them — you get everything you need with a balanced diet.
For decades, it was assumed that multivitamins were critical to overall health. Vitamin C would “boost your immune system;” vitamin A could protect your vision; vitamin B might keep you energized.
Scientific research suggests this is false. A new review of more than 100 studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found no evidence linking multivitamins to a reduced risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, or death from any cause.
Some studies even suggest that consuming vitamins in excess can cause harm. A large, longterm 2011 study of close to 39,000 older women found that women who took vitamins over the course of more than 20 years actually had a higher overall risk of death than those who didn’t take any supplements.
Vitamin D: Take it — It helps keep your bones strong and it’s hard to get from food.
Vitamin D isn’t present in most of the foods we eat, but it’s a critical ingredient that keeps our bones strong by helping us absorb calcium. Getting sunlight helps our bodies produce vitamin D as well, but it can be tough to get enough in the winter.
Antioxidants: Skip them — an excess of these has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, and you can eat berries instead.
Vitamins A, C, and E are antioxidants found in many fruits — especially berries — and veggies. They’ve been touted for their potential to protect against cancer.
But studies suggest that when taken in excess, antioxidants can actually be harmful. A large, long-term study of male smokers found that those who regularly took vitamin A were more likely to get lung cancer than those who didn’t. And a 2007 review of trials of several different types of antioxidant supplements put it this way: “Treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.”
Vitamin C: Skip it — it probably won’t help you get over your cold, and you can eat citrus fruits instead.
A 2013 review of 29 trials which involved more than 11,300 people found “no consistent effect of vitamin C … on the duration or severity of colds.” The only place the authors observed some benefits of vitamin C supplementation was in marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers on “subarctic exercise” — and even in those small populations, the observed effect was small.
“The failure of vitamin C supplementation to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population indicates that routine vitamin C supplementation is not justified,” the study authors wrote.
In addition to lacking in health benefits, large doses of vitamin C may be harmful. Studies suggest that megadoses of 2,000 milligrams of the vitamin or more can raise your risk of painful kidney stones. To be safe, get your vitamin C from food. Strawberries are packed with the nutrient.
Vitamin B3: Skip it and eat salmon, tuna, or beets instead.
For years, vitamin B3 was promoted to treat everything from Alzheimer’s to heart disease. But recent studies have called for an end to the over-prescription of the nutrient.
A large 2014 study of more than 25,000 people with heart disease found that putting people on long-acting doses of vitamin B3 to raise their levels of “good,” or HDL, cholesterol didn’t reduce the incidence of heart attacks, strokes, or deaths.
Plus, people in the study who took the B3 supplements were more likely than those taking a placebo to develop infections, liver problems, and internal bleeding.
Probiotics: Skip them — the science isn’t advanced enough yet for them to have a significant benefit, and you can eat yogurt instead.
The idea behind them is simple: Support the trillions of bacteria blossoming in our gut that play a crucial role in regulating our health.
But probiotics are found naturally in yogurt and other fermented foods. And so far, the effects of probiotic supplements have been all over the map. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t. So rather than shelling out for a pricey pill, snack on a parfait.
Zinc: Take it — it’s one of the only ingredients than can shorten a cold.
Unlike vitamin C, which studies have found doesn’t do much to prevent or treat the common cold, zinc may actually be worth it. The mineral seems to interfere with the replication of rhinoviruses, the bugs that cause the common cold.
In a 2011 review of studies, researchers looked at people who’d recently gotten sick and had started taking zinc. They compared those people with a group that just took a placebo. The participants on the zinc had shorter colds and less severe symptoms.
Vitamin E: Skip it — an excess has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, and you can eat spinach instead.
The antioxidant vitamin E was popularized for its supposed ability to protect against cancer. But a large 2011 study of close to 36,000 men found that the risk of prostate cancer actually increased among men taking vitamin E compared to men who just took a placebo.
A 2005 study linked high doses of vitamin E with an overall higher risk of death. So if you’re looking for more vitamin E, make yourself a fresh spinach salad and skip the pill. Dark greens are rich with this stuff.
Folic acid: Take it if you’re pregnant or if you might want to get pregnant.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that our bodies use to make new cells. The National Institutes of Health recommend that women who are currently pregnant or who want to get pregnant take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily because their bodies demand more of this nutrient when carrying a growing fetus.
Additionally, several large studies have linked folic acid supplementation before and during pregnancy with decreased rates of neural-tube defects: serious and life-threatening birth defects of the baby’s brain, spine, or spinal cord.