Q. I'm confused by conflicting reports about the benefits of multivitamins. Should I take one?
A. What a simple, straightforward question! I wish I had a simple, straightforward answer. Here's the simple, uncomplicated part: foods rich in the major vitamins are indisputably good for our health. Most of the vitamins were first discovered because severe deficiency of them produced a particular disease. For example, deficiency of vitamin C caused scurvy. Such severe vitamin-deficiency diseases are rarely seen in the developed countries. However, eating foods rich in vitamins still brings benefits, beyond preventing such diseases. Vitamin-rich foods also reduce our risk of most of the major killers, including heart disease and many types of cancer.
folic acid per day, which protects against birth defects. Older adults should get the equivalent of at least 800 units daily of vitamin D, in food or pill form, to protect against bone thinning (osteoporosis). There are some people who may benefit from a daily multivitamin: people who suffer from conditions of the stomach and intestine that make it harder to digest vitamins in foods, people who abuse alcohol, and people who eat a vegan diet (which is low in some vitamins). Finally, there are people who are born with conditions that can cause a specific vitamin deficiency. I am one of them. I inherited a condition that causes low levels of certain B vitamins in my body, so I take a B vitamin supplement daily (not a multivitamin pill).
âAnthony L. Komaroff, M.D.
Editor in Chief
Harvard Health Letter