Are Multivitamins Essentially Placebos?

By Bill Kray

It appears that rather than spend money on vitamins, patients are beginning to feel they should take their prescribed medication, eat what they normally do, get plenty of rest, exercise, and have regular medical checkups. Basically, live life as we normally would, sans vitamins. To prevent exaggeration, let me get the exact quote from the multivitamin researchers, Eliseo Guallar, MD, et al:

"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 supplement users in the United States and in other countries."

While the report conclusions use such language as, "their use is not justified" and "multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective," it is repeatedly in context to preventing mortality or chronic disease — not to feeling or performing better on a daily basis.

These multivitamin clinical trials have evaluated outcomes of thousands of patients over many years. So should we conclude that all vitamins are worthless and should be avoided?

Imagine your team of researchers have conducted a clinical study of 1000 unicyclists. Relative health benefits are cataloged with injuries. Perhaps the data suggests an increased number of knee and shoulder injuries from falls; a high non-compliance rate due to such accidents; better balance, etc. Would the researchers be justified in applying their conclusions to all bicyclists, despite the fact that a higher population is more adept in traditional cycling?

Should We Take a Multivitamin? —

Anatomy of a Clinical Report

Generally, there are distinct parts to a clinical report: The abstract may provide background and explain how initial theories were be challenged. The materials and methods section offers details about the number and condition of participants, makeup of the control vehicle as compared to the test product along with any measuring instruments or guidelines. Results outline the actual findings, supported by raw data and photographs. Finally, the authors summarize the conclusions; this is where things can sometimes get tricky. Conclusions should not stray from actual results or materials and methods.

The largest group of clinical trials examined the efficacy of multivitamins and various individual vitamins to prevent heart attacks and cancer. Another study measured effectiveness of vitamins on senior memory. The final study looked at patients who previously had heart attacks to see if vitamins would prevent further cardiac events.

In each case, vitamins had little to no effect on preventing specified outcomes. Nevertheless, can these results become license to negate efficacy of all vitamins on the general population? At first glance, the title, "Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements" might seem to apply to every user of vitamin supplements. However, readers must remember to insert this qualifier after the title: "…to prevent chronic disease or death."