A decent diet will provide all the nutrients you need—save for a few very specific exceptions.
Vitamins are in the middle of a glow-up. A crop of new startups have made the fusty GNC staples, dare we say it, cool: Care/of sends out monthly shipments of beautiful multicolored capsules based on a personal quiz. Ritual packs theirs into sleek clear pills that look like little lava lamps. Vitafive ships theirs out as sleekly packaged gummies.
Beyond the new packaging, vitamins have the same appeal they always have: these micronutrients are vital to life (hence the name). Without them, you can literally die, likely in agony, potentially of an embarrassingly old-fashioned disease like rickets or scurvy.
So take your vitamins, right? Allow me to hem and haw and equivocate. There are certainly cases where people need to take them: People that don’t get enough sun might find themselves short of vitamin D—supplements can help with this, though so can eating a little more salmon or canned tuna. Pregnant women should take folic acid, period. Studies support the idea that vegans may benefit from taking vitamin B, since animal products and supplements are the only source of vitamin B12. And some of these companies sell products that are not technically vitamins that may help you with a specific problem: collagen does seem to improve the appearance of your skin (though the science is quite thin); protein powder certainly can help you get swole.
But one thing that’s there’s no need to equivocate about? Studies have found that vitamins taken for overall health—which generally takes the form of the daily multivitamin—are useless for the average American adult. Most of us get what we need from our diets. And even though some people don’t have an ideal diet, vitamins still haven’t been shown to make us healthier. They have no clear effect on lifespan, heart health, disease prevention, or cognitive function. At best, they don’t hurt or help us, but they can interact badly with medication or even make us feel licensed to indulge in more unhealthy behaviors.
Most vitamin sellers claim only that they’ll help “fill in the gaps” of our imperfect diets. It’s just insurance, they say. But why, in that case, would a person concerned with their health not just try and eat a little better? Good food has all the vitamins you need, and is also full of helpful, but not essential, micronutrients—antioxidants and the like. (By good food, we’re talking fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains—real basic food pyramid stuff.) And while there’s nothing to indicate that vitamins improve the health of the average person, studies are clear that leveling up your diet is as close to a guaranteed way to improve your health as we’ve got.
Most people know all of this to some extent: it’s not news that vitamins are not a miracle pill. And yet dietary supplements make up an industry that’s worth $30 billion and growing. Surveys show at least half of American adults take them, including an increasing number of adults between 18 and 34. Most of us feel too smart to put jade eggs in our vaginas or crystals in our water bottles, but a daily multivitamin is basically the same—they activate our desire for optimal health and that small part of our psyche that thinks maybe this is one easy thing we can do that might make a difference. And it couldn’t hurt to try, right?
Safi Khan, assistant clinical professor of medicine at West Virginia University, says that most people choose vitamins without professional consultation thinking that it’ll end up having some benefit. “It has a more placebo effect than anything, and in that case you’re wasting a lot of your money,” he says. Khan was a lead author on a 2019 Johns Hopkins analysis of clinical trials comprising almost 1 million subjects, which found that supplements don’t put off death or affect heart disease. The only two supplements that the study found might have real effects were omega-3 fatty acids for heart health and folic acid for lower risk of stroke. But the study also points out that most of us are probably getting enough folic acid in our diets through cereals and grains.
None of this is to say that scurvy is fake news. “I really believe that nutritional deficiencies do exist, and there is a proper way to get it treated, but you need to get properly tested,” Khan says. Vitamin use currently resembles online shopping for a more vibrant you. What it should really look like is going to a doctor, then getting a specific plan to take a supplement for a specified amount of time.
If there’s a truly sinister thing about the daily multivitamin, it’s the way it distracts us from the unglamorous realities of staying healthy. The bottom line is the same as always: eating a varied, healthy diet is a dependable, inexpensive way to get all of the nutrients we need. If that doesn’t feel like enough, talk to a doctor. And if a fancy daily vitamin still appeals, ask yourself if what you really want is just to eat a couple of gummies. Maybe that’s all you need to feel a little better.