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Do Vitamin Pills Actually Do Anything?

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A group of doctors in a leading medical journal are issuing a blunt warning to consumers: "stop wasting money" on vitamins. At least 50 percent of Americans use vitamins or dietary supplements, "despite sobering evidence of no benefit," according to the editorial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The admonition comes as three new studies in the journal concluded vitamins delivered little health impact. Last year, the CDC said most Americans get all the vitamins they need from a well-balanced diet, although certain groups did have deficiencies in Vitamin D and iron.

The editorial's words against the majority of dietary supplements were uncharacteristically sharp:

Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided. This message is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, who represent most of the supplement users in the United States and other countries.

Rebecca Andrews is a primary care doctor who teaches medicine at UConn. "The editorial was pretty spot on," Andrews said. "If you're spending a lot of money on vitamins and you like your fruits and vegetables and you'd rather spend that money on fruits and vegetables, you're going to get better health from doing that."

Andrews said there hasn't been a lot of long-term studies on multivitamins. That type of research is generally reserved for prescription medications. Vitamin D remains "an open area of investigation," according to the editorial. And folic acid has been shown to help prevent neural tube defects as babies develop early in the first trimester.

The takeaway? A wholesale dismissal of supplements might be overkill. "You first have to separate out who it is you are," Andrews said. "If you're a pregnant women you need to take your prenatal vitamins ... you're growing a body that is going to use all of your vitamins, so both you and the developing baby need that." 

In 2010, Americans pumped $28 billion into the U.S. supplement industry. According to the editorial, "similar trends have been observed in the United Kingdom and other European countries." 

It's important to note that the science behind all this is still shaping up. The only truly long-term study of vitamin use I was able to find was Physicians Health Study-II, a randomized, controlled trial of 15,000 doctors. Their results on vitamins? Mixed.

One study (oft-cited by the vitamin industry) observed a correlation between multivitamin use and reduced cancer risk. But another study, from that same group of doctors, said daily multivitamin use had zero impact on overall cognitive performance in men aged 65 years or older.

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