These Pills Aren't Your Golden Ticket to Health

Chances are, if there were some magic pill that could satisfy all your nutritional and health needs, everyone would be taking it...

When multivitamin supplements first hit the pharmacy and grocery-store shelves in the 1940s, folks began gobbling them up...

And they haven't stopped, even though significant deficiency in vitamins and minerals – aside from iron – is not common for folks in the U.S.

So, do we really need multivitamins?

Today, according to the 2023 National Health Statistics Reports, nearly 60% of adults and 35% of children and teens surveyed had taken a dietary supplement at some point in the 30 days prior to being interviewed.

And, recently, a new study on multivitamins – specifically Centrum Silver – has been making its way around the major news circuits...

In this new study – published last month – a group of Harvard researchers conducted a meta-analysis of three studies which were part of a larger clinical trial called the COcoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study, or "Cosmos."

The purpose of Cosmos was to investigate whether supplementing a diet with cocoa extract and/or a multivitamin would forestall memory loss in older adults. (Spoiler alert – cocoa extract was not associated with any improvements in memory preservation.)

However, the researchers in the new meta-analysis study found that – compared with a placebo – folks taking a daily dose of Centrum Silver experienced slowed declines in their global cognition (i.e., things like attention, working memory, and language skills) and episodic memory (i.e., recalling prior experiences) by about two years, on average.

That's pretty significant... especially given that memory loss and cognitive decline are huge concerns for folks as they age.

And while this sounds promising, I just can't ignore the idea that ingesting more micronutrients than you need over a long period of time is harmful to your health... specifically ones that are not water-soluble...

For example, a study published in JAMA Network Open revealed that 776 dietary supplements tested by the FDA between 2007 and 2016 contained unapproved pharmaceutical-grade ingredients.

Taking supplements laced with prescription ingredients leads to trouble. You could set yourself up for dangerous side effects, medication interactions, or death. And people often fail to mention any supplements they take when talking to their doctor because most folks just consider supplements "safe." After all, the nutrition in these pills is similar to real food, right?

Not true.

So here's my advice on supplementing your diet...

1. Do what I do and take a multivitamin once or twice a week, rather than every day. This will uphold your micronutrient balance much better than making this an everyday habit.

Because don't forget – the food you eat also contains micronutrients... and some supplements contain way more of a particular nutrient than what the Food and Nutrition Board's "recommended dietary allowance" (or "RDA") suggests.

2. Discover your nutritional deficiencies and then target your supplementation. There are blood tests that exist to identify holes in your nutrition. You can do these with the guidance of your doctor or on your own with an at-home test.

Once you have your results, supplement your diet with foods (ideally) that contain the nutrients you're not getting. And if you need some help putting all the pieces together, work with your doctor to translate the results of your test. (Just don't let them put you on a battery of supplements when there are real-food alternatives.)

3. Eat like a person from the Mediterranean. Studies show that following the Mediterranean diet helps prolong your memory as well. Foods like:

1. Extra virgin olive oil
2. Fatty fish
3. Whole grains
4. Beans and legumes
5. Fresh fruits and non-starchy vegetables 

A 2015 study that took place in Spain looked at the effects of the Mediterranean diet on the memory retention of more than 300 seniors over a four-year period.

The researchers found that maintaining a Mediterranean diet – as opposed to a low-fat "control" diet – led to significant improvements in memory, global cognition, and frontal cognition (i.e., complex skills like planning and organizing) over the four-year period.

My diet is varied, and I eat nuts and green, leafy vegetables and other root vegetables regularly. When you consume vitamins in whole foods, you're getting much lower doses and avoiding the risks of toxicity, while also getting various nutrients.

Of course, I'm human... Like anyone, I fall short of those dietary goals from time to time. To cover myself in those cases, I take a multivitamin about once per week. Most people don't need to take a supplement, especially those containing fat-soluble vitamins, any more often than that.

Your body needs small amounts of these vitamins to function well. If you're getting greens and colored fruits and vegetables weekly, you're putting all the vitamins you need into your system. Your liver and the fat in your body store these vitamins and can get these nutrients when they're needed.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
February 6, 2024