Rethinking the Worthlessness of Multivitamins


I need to vent about something. I recently stumbled upon an article that looked at daily multivitamins and supplements, claiming they might be unnecessary for most folks. While a registered dietician wrote the article, I’m afraid I have to fundamentally disagree. Here are a few reasons why I think the article missed the mark and why people must be extremely careful about the information they consume.

First off, let’s acknowledge a few valid points from the article. Indeed, the term “multivitamins” is a bit of a free spirit, with different products packing different nutrients at different levels and in various forms—pills, gummies, powders, liquids, you name it. Indeed, some are trash, but some are okay, and some are excellent. Sure, the supplement industry is trying to clean up its act, but the point is that getting too hung up on a precise definition seems like nitpicking.

Let’s level-set. Multivitamin simply means more than one vitamin. Of course, some include minerals, but again, let’s not nitpick too much. Either way, people generally reach for multivitamins to get more than one nutrient at a time. This is to say that people generally consume these in their attempt to cover their bases and to help fill the gaps that they may or may not be aware of.

However, the article in question threw shade at multivitamins, citing studies that question their impact on major diseases like cancer and heart disease. But let’s get real. Most folks aren’t popping supplements to “treat” major illnesses. If they are, it’s because they are misguided or were instructed to do so for a very specific reason. As mentioned, it’s more about patching nutritional gaps or supporting chronic conditions that mess with our nutrient levels. The hope is that by being more proactive, they can avoid a worsening of their condition or simply avoid developing a chronic condition that typically comes with nutrient deficiencies, thereby avoiding the pain that comes with choosing a more reactive approach.

Sure, the article flagged the potential dangers of specific vitamins, especially the fat-soluble ones like Vitamin A. I don’t have a problem with that, and I generally agree. However, labeling all vitamins as “worthless” is more than a stretch. Instead of suggesting that vitamins are worthless or dangerous because of rare instances of consuming too much or too many, perhaps we should consider it a call to educate people on responsible vitamin intake, not tossing the entire concept out the window.

Here’s the kicker: the article admitted that some folks, like those with gastrointestinal issues or who’ve had gastric bypass surgery, might need extra vitamins. However, that right there proves multivitamins aren’t just for show. Of course, isn’t it interesting how vitamins are considered worthless unless there is a condition present that can benefit and immediately demonstrate their impact? But isn’t it also interesting that there are instances when vitamins have an immediate and demonstrable impact at all? What does that tell us?

Better yet, consider what happens in the absence of nutritional sufficiency. Would that not eventually provide you with a chronic condition that would immediately benefit from supplementation, or could have been avoided by supplementing in the first place? So, which is better? Being proactive or reactive?

Regardless, I’d go further and say vitamins are essential for those with serious health conditions, pregnant individuals, vegans, sun-avoiders, medication takers, the obese, and people grappling with osteoporosis or age-related macular degeneration. Of course, the list goes on, but I share these to demonstrate my point. That’s a lot of people who can potentially benefit from a multivitamin. Hence, it’s easy to see that vitamin supplementation is far from “worthless” and is absolutely necessary for an increasing and alarming number of Americans. Be careful about what you believe.

So, that’s where this article ends. For those who stop reading here, I appreciate your time. However, I know that I have several readers interested in examining some of the context of my frustration on this topic. I’m happy to share that. Here we go.

Rant Time: The Reality of the Situation

The truth is our bodies need a constant supply of “vital minerals.” Daily intake becomes crucial, especially when dealing with health conditions and environmental factors that demand a higher nutrient intake. Most health professionals will tell you that it’s better to get these from your diet, which is true. However, not everyone is getting the supply they require from their food, and not all foods have the levels that we require. Hence, those who are aware of this reality turn to multivitamins.

Again, it is true that not all multivitamins are created equal, and a well-balanced diet is the gold standard. But let’s face it—many folks fall short of this ideal, thanks to the food industry’s influence, income issues that hinder quality food purchases, nutritionally depleted foods, and a lack of nutritional education. However, regardless of who you want to blame, the problem remains, and a solution is required.

I’ll be blunt. Dismissing vitamins entirely while pushing only for a healthy diet drastically oversimplifies a highly complex issue. The fact remains that vitamin supplementation is essential in numerous situations, and not everyone has the luxury of access to a well-rounded diet or nutritional know-how. This presents a complex problem, and I find it more than ironic that a dietician would say something so silly.

I’ll start with the idea that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently rang the alarm over the fact that millions of Americans are having difficulty getting enough food to feed their families. Of course, that also means millions of Americans choose low-quality foods just to survive. The problem is compounded by the fact that nutrition education in public schools is generally lacking, and the schools that are at least trying typically have programs being taught by non-experts sharing information based on what they think they know. Even worse, even medical schools lack the necessary emphasis on nutrition in their curricula. I could go on, but these alone demonstrate that suggesting that people focus solely on a healthy diet while labeling vitamins worthless is highly impractical, if not downright irresponsible and nonsensical.

Making matters worse is the fact that scientific evidence for this topic varies, but that’s partly because we’re grappling with flawed assumptions about what’s “healthy.” Similarly, the lack of conclusive evidence in particularly biased studies that use less-than-quality supplements or misguided criteria doesn’t erase the clear and demonstrated benefits of vitamin supplementation in numerous situations.

Moreover, we have to remember that the absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence. Ongoing research keeps uncovering more about our bodies and the role of various nutrients every day. More importantly, it continues to find amazing benefits in supplementation in the face of multiple conditions. A great example of this might be the role of B12, Magnesium, and Vitamin D in patients impacted by COVID-19.

Regardless, it is an unfortunate reality that many folks miss out on essential nutrients and lack the necessary knowledge about where to find them in their diets. For example, what is the primary source of iodine in the diets of most Americans? The iodized salt that they’ve been told to avoid? What are these people supposed to do? It seems to me that, generally speaking, the benefits of supplementing with multivitamins far outweigh the risks while also mitigating the dangers of ignorance. Recognizing these apparent gaps is crucial for a more informed and realistic approach to vitamins and overall health.

The Bigger Issue.

Ultimately, the science demonstrates that modifying one’s diet can profoundly influence individuals grappling with persistent health challenges, specifically chronic diseases. This has been shown time and time again. So, define irony that the leading causes of death are behavior-related, and most physicians are not trained in behavior-related disease management. Here lies the crux of the matter. A staggering 60% of U.S. adults are dealing with at least one chronic disease, while 40% find themselves contending with two or more. Many of these conditions are related to nutrition, or more pointedly, a lack thereof.

Recognizing that nutritional interventions positively impact the health status of those dealing with chronic conditions underscores the potential widespread benefits of supplementation. Again, it’s high time to reassess the notion that additional nutrients cater only to a few, as logic dictates that a significant portion of the population could benefit from additional nutritional support. This paradigm shift is imperative, particularly when we acknowledge nutrition’s pivotal role in effectively managing chronic diseases.

It’s All About Cause and Effect

Here’s another problem. Nutrition is not elementary. This is to say that it’s not simple or something that can be effectively covered in a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. I want you to understand that there are some people who have dedicated their entire lives to the study of nutrition, and they are still discovering new things regularly. One has to wonder. What could they possibly be learning if nutrition is so simple? Perhaps it’s not so simple after all. The truth is that a big part of that study centers around cause and effect. I’ll give you a brief example to help express the point.

Our well-being is tied to the state of our gut, and the numbers are alarming. It is thought that some 74% of Americans endure some kind of persistent digestive issue. Of course, this also suggests that gut-related concerns are more widespread than most appreciate. However, I glean from this that a very large number of Americans are likely dealing with nutrient absorption issues as well. But why?

Understanding the gut-brain axis is key. The gut and brain communicate through nerves, neurotransmitters, gut microbes, and, for our purposes here, inflammation. Remember that the body seeks to protect itself. Accordingly, inflammation is the red flag. It’s a warning sign that something is not right in the body. Of course, we must remember that inflammation and absorption issues have a strong interplay and that malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies tend to be more pronounced when our intestines are inflamed.

This is to say that if you struggle with inflammation, you may struggle with digestion. If you struggle with digestion, you might face difficulties absorbing essential nutrients, leading to malabsorption. This malabsorption can trigger strong cravings for quick energy fixes like sugar and refined carbs. Unfortunately, a diet high in processed foods, sugar, refined carbs, and saturated fats (the Standard American Diet) typically triggers inflammation. And there you go.

For example, research has repeatedly shown a strong link between ongoing inflammation and gaining extra weight. But it is actually worse than all that, especially when you factor in the lack of nutrients found in the cheaper inflammatory foods being consumed – by the millions of people struggling to buy food, let alone quality food. Unfortunately, it gets worse.

While getting all your nutrients from your diet is theoretically possible, the reality is far from ideal. Many simply lack knowledge about what makes a ‘healthy’ diet, and, as previously mentioned, many teachers and physicians fall short on nutritional expertise. Hence, many Americans go all-in on foods that are also considered “anti-nutrients” in their pursuit of healthy options. Now factor in the prevalence of processed fast-food consumption in the U.S., with nearly 72% of Americans choosing such foods for price or convenience, and a nasty picture begins to surface.

Now, an argument can made that there are a lot of people who know about nutrition and act accordingly. I concede to that, but even those striving for a balanced diet may be let down to discover that many of the fruits and vegetables they consume are actually nutrient-depleted compared to those found just 50 to 70 years ago. Hence, the situation is looking pretty grim for those people as well.

So, let’s think about it. If our health foods are less nutrient-dense than they used to be, and many of the low-quality inflammatory foods lack essential nutrients in general, then where are people supposed to get the essential nutrients to fill that gap if multivitamins truly are worthless? It’s a scary thought!

Allow me to show you an example of how silly this can get. Combining poor dietary choices with unhealthy lifestyles gives us the Standard American Experience. As previously mentioned, this standard American Experience contributes to inflammation, absorption issues, and vitamin deficiencies. For this example, let’s focus on vitamin D.

High vitamin D deficiency rates are found in obese populations. As you may know, obesity is on the rise, and the reason centers around poor food choices. Personally, I blame this on the lack of quality nutrition education. Either way, it’s an increasing problem.

So, what’s the cost? Immune issues, depression, increased risk of infection, rickets, osteoporosis, osteomalacia, etc. Of course, I should probably clarify that the standard American Experience has resulted in about 74% of U.S. adults that are already overweight, with almost 43% classified as obese. Now, if high rates of vitamin D deficiencies are found in overweight populations, and the majority of adults are overweight, is it safe to say that a large percentage of these individuals are likely vitamin D deficient? Probably.

The mainstream suggestion to correct this issue is that these individuals just need to get their diet right. The problem is that fruits and vegetables don’t really provide much vitamin D. Mushrooms are a good source, but they’re also one of America’s least favorite foods. Misguided anti-meat diets aside for a moment, fish has quite a bit, but many are conditioned to avoid fish due to mercury levels or simply can’t afford enough due to its expense. Eggs have plenty, but expense aside, they are also one of the most common allergy-causing foods for children, and the avoidance typically continues into adulthood. Beef liver has plenty, but most people avoid it due to the perceived “ick factor,” and then there is the dangerous misconception that beef consumption is somehow bad for you. Dairy usually has quite a bit, but again, most people dealing with obesity are conditioned to avoid dairy or limit its intake.

That pretty much leaves sun exposure, chocolate, and supplements. Well, I can’t imagine any sober health professional suggesting that overweight people should eat more chocolate. So, these people are pretty much left with bathing in the sun, which they are usually told to avoid, and the supplements that irresponsible articles suggest are worthless. And we wonder why people can’t get it together! It’s frustrating.

Addressing the Diet

First, there is a difference between having a healthy diet and being on a healthy diet. I’ll be blunt here and say that restrictive fad diets are not where it’s at. The evidence supports this, but so does your experience. Over half of the population has tried and failed to stick with a restrictive fad diet at some point. That’s because they typically don’t work, and they make you hungry. If you are hungry, you typically want quick energy, which usually ends up being an inflammatory food.

Frankly, the diet and nutrition conversation is a mess, and misconceptions are not helping. Consider the facts. Extreme fad diets, from starvation to veganism, typically lead to vitamin deficiencies. On the other end of the spectrum, as previously mentioned, obesity is also linked to nutritional shortfalls. Considering the statistics, that seems to leave a very small number of people who are not in need of additional nutritional support.

Let’s get back on point. Perhaps the problem isn’t in the concept of multivitamins but in the composition of those multivitamins. Let’s chat about that for a moment.

The Composition Matters

Individual nutritional needs depend on factors like age, gender, and health conditions. For example, menstruating women may need extra iron, pregnant women may need more iodine, older men might benefit from more zinc, and those dealing with obesity might need increased vitamin D. The point is that we all have individualized needs. So, it’s logical to suggest that one size does not fit all.

At the same time, not all multivitamins are created equal and contain varying amounts of vitamins and minerals. They’re also human-made. This means that many supplements likely will not fully capture nature’s complexity. So, when seeking nutritional support, choosing a quality multivitamin or supplement that more closely aligns with your individual needs is wise; choosing supplements that are easier to absorb is wiser, and consuming these supplements along with a physiologically sound diet is brilliant.

However, that’s sort of the problem. This recommendation requires knowing what those needs are and which products are quality products. And frankly, that’s a problem for many who do not know what they do not know, those who assume that they do know but don’t, those who rely on irresponsible articles for their health advice, and those who rely on physicians or teachers who were not educated in applied nutrition. It’s the blind leading the blind!

Here’s the bottom line: For those dealing with specific health conditions, suspect that they are dealing with a health condition, maintaining a poor diet, or leading a less-than-optimal lifestyle, considering the possibility of nutritional deficiencies and supplementing accordingly may not be a terrible idea. However, doing your research is critical. And most importantly, testing for potential deficiencies is great if you can find a nutritionally competent physician.

If you are left on your own, I would advise that you examine your diet over a week or two. Research the nutrient composition of those foods and look for lower levels of vitamins and minerals, and then attempt to address any blatant gaps. Similarly, I would explore what a “healthy” diet is but be acutely aware that there are a lot of misconceptions in the mainstream and fad-diet worlds. Appeal to your omnivorous physiology!

At the end of the day, I just want to convey that multivitamins are not inherently worthless. Hopefully, I’ve demonstrated that. At the same time, I acknowledge that some are not that great! We must be highly cautious of those companies that make fantastic claims about how their products impact certain conditions, and I think we should avoid the big-box stores that sell less-than-quality supplements. And finally, pardon the pun, but I advise taking any health information (including mine) with a grain of salt. You have to do what is right for you, but that requires that you explore what is right for you and stop relying on social media for your health advice, especially when there are clear and massive gaps in the logic.

If you liked this article and want to learn more about nutrition, you might also like Nature’s Intent is Easy to Understand.

Dr. Robertson is a health researcher and educator, not a physician. The information provided here is not medical advice, a professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment, or service to you or any other individual. The information provided is for educational and anecdotal purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional care. You should not use the information in place of a visit, call consultation, or the advice of your physician or other healthcare providers. Dr. Robertson is not liable or responsible for any advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or additional information, services, or product you obtain or utilize. IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY, YOU SHOULD IMMEDIATELY CALL 911 OR YOUR PHYSICIAN.