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Why Julie Dropped Her Multi: Tufts Experts Debate Multi-Vitamins

This article is more than 5 years old.
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I trust Julie Flaherty. She used to be my colleague back in our New York Times days, and never was there a more stalwart or accurate reporter. "Yes!" I said, when I saw that, in her current role as editor of Tufts Nutrition magazine, she had put together a roundtable discussion on the science of multi-vitamins, and posed its experts the widespread question: I'm a fairly healthy adult with a pretty good diet. My doctor said to take a multi-vitamin. Should I?

I stopped taking multi-vitamins more than a year ago because more and more data seemed to suggest they did little or no good, and might even do a bit of harm. But I confess to unease about that decision; doctors keep routinely recommending them, and the silver-haired people in the TV ads look so healthy and happy...I'll take my cue from Julie, I decided.

The discussion begins with a contrast between two Tufts professors and nutrition researchers, Jeffrey Blumberg and Alice H. Lichtenstein.

Blumberg: I feel there is no harm in taking a multivitamin, and doing so will help fill in the gaps. More than half the American population isn’t consuming the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains that we recommend to help them meet their needs for vitamins and minerals.

Lichtenstein: Your physician’s recommendation is not consistent with current clinical guidelines. There was a very extensive systematic review sponsored by the federal government that was done by the Johns Hopkins Evidence-Based Practice Center that showed no benefit to the general population from a multivitamin.

It's a rich discussion, worth reading all of, but here are my takeaways: We already get many vitamins from fortified foods. We should think about vitamins in a more individualized way: Which particular ones am I lacking? And mainly, we need to eat better, not expect vitamins to fill in any nutritional gaps. Here's a memorable quote from nutrition researcher Johanna Dwyer, a professor at Tufts School of Medicine:

Indiscriminate vitamin use is sort of like the use of holy water in the Middle Ages: People thought if you sprinkled it on things, it would ward off all evil. People who take supplements would probably be offended by that, but sometimes if you look at their reasons, they are not more sophisticated than beliefs in the Middle Ages.

Oof. I asked Julie what effect this discussion had on her own multivitamin practices. She emailed:

My personal follow-up: I used the My Fitness Pal app on my phone to track what nutrients and micronutrients I was actually getting, and I was surprised. I was getting much less fat than I thought, hitting most of my A and C, but consistently low on calcium, even though I thought I ate a lot of dairy. So I stopped taking the occasional multi and started taking a calcium and D supplement, since, as you know, we can’t get all we need from the sun here in Boston. Plus, the calcium and D fruit gummies are really tasty—much better than those icky chocolate ones.

Reassuring. I made a similar move when I dropped my multi-vitamin: started taking just Vitamin D and baby aspirin; now I'll check my calcium consumption.

As Dr. Dwyer says, since multivitamins don't seem to cause particular good or harm, "It’s a personal choice. It’s like whether people should be avoiding every animal food or everything that has added sugar. A lot of these blanket statements about absolutely consuming or not consuming foods or multivitamins are oversimplified, inconsequential, yuppie-related food faddism."

Double oof. Readers, have you changed your vitamin consumption habits of late? On the basis of what? Read the full Tufts discussion here.

This program aired on November 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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