Like half of U.S. adults, I buy vitamins. Sure, I eat fruits and vegetables and drink milk. But I consider my daily multivitamin (a Flintstone's Complete!) a good insurance policy in case I fall short on my carrots and calcium.
Yet in the back of my mind, I've always wondered whether I was wasting my money. Was I just producing what some doctors call "expensive urine"? After all, no studies show that vitamins prolong life.
But lately I've been feeling better about my investment. New research from Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital followed 15,000 50-and-older men who took either a daily multivitamin or a placebo for more than a decade.
The results: the supplement takers reduced their risk of cancer by 8 to 12 percent. Researchers concluded that a daily vitamin appears to address vitamin and mineral deficiencies—and to help prevent cancer.
So does the new research show that vitamins prolong life? "It's supportive," says Dr. J. Michael Gaziano, chief of the division of aging at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the lead researcher on the multivitamin trial. "Most trials don't answer the total mortality question. [But] it's the best evidence yet that vitamins do something beyond preventing deficiency."
Though no dates are set yet, they also plan to disclose findings about whether multivitamins also decrease the risk of heart disease, eye disease, and cognitive decline.
Past studies looked at high doses of single vitamins rather than at a multivitamin with the amount of vitamins a person could conceivably get through balanced meals, says Gaziano. "A varied diet, high in fruits and vegetables, is associated with a low risk of cancer. This is really supporting that kind of idea."
Still, the best way to prevent cancer remains just saying no to cigarettes. "It would be a mistake to take a multivitamin and not stop smoking," says Gaziano.
The study did not look at women or kids. But multivitamins might be a good idea for them, too. Gaziano gave his own children multivitamins. "They were often on the fly," he says. "Some days dinner was a slice of pizza on the way out the door."
The study also didn't dictate that participants take their vitamins at any particular time of day. "We thought it was more important to make sure they just took one," says Gaziano. But when in doubt, consumers may want to swallow them with food.
"If you take the fat-soluble ones with a fatty meal, you're going to absorb more of them," says Gaziano. "There are some studies that if you take A, D, E, and K with a fatty meal, you'll get more absorption."
What should people who forget to take their vitamin do? "Just put it in the medicine cabinet, where you see it every day," says Gaziano.
And what about people, like me, who don't like gulping down whole tablets? "If your kid won't swallow a pill, but they'll chew one, have them take a chewable," says Gaziano. "That's better than spitting out a non-chewable."
Nutritionists still advise Americans that a balanced diet is the best medicine of all. "When it comes to prolonging life, the answer is food first, not multivitamins," says registered dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Read It Before You Eat It: How to Decode Food Labels and Make the Healthiest Choice Every Time. "Even though I do think multivitamins are a good idea, I do believe food first. Don't look to get everything you need from a vitamin pill."
And don't go overboard. "You don't want excess," says Taub-Dix, who takes a daily multivitamin herself. "You want what you need for your requirements."
Americans should check that food and even bottled water does not include extra vitamins. "You could be taking a multivitamin and individual vitamins, and if you have four bottles of water, you could be getting the same amount there, and that could be risky," says Taub-Dix. Too much vitamin A, for example, could tax your liver.
Some people may need multivitamins more than others. Vegans, for example, may find it difficult to get enough B12 without eating any animal products. And premenopausal women may benefit from extra iron. "I don't know a lot of people who eat liver," says Taub-Dix.
Chewables are OK for families—but make sure young kids don't eat them like candy, says Taub-Dix. Don't keep them in reach of [small] kids."
Healthy living tips for the 50+ brought to you by Crest & Oral-B ProHealth For Life.