Turns out there aren’t any shortcuts.

By Tim Nelson
June 20, 2019
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I have the eating habits of a trash can at a Guy Fieri restaurant and increasingly feel “too busy” for exercise. So the bottle of multivitamins on my desk is pretty much the only chance I have to live a long and healthy life. I’m so insistent on ingesting these magic bullets of wellness that I’ve been known to absentmindedly take one and then another about 15 minutes later because my short-term memory sucks. 

Given that the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplement lobbying group, suggests 75% of American adults take supplements, I’m not alone in assuming that multivitamins and their various counterparts are a shortcut to health. 

As it turns out, all of us are probably wrong. 

According to a National Institutes of Health-funded study, it sure seems like getting your nutrients from supplements is not the key to a longer life. The Tufts University study drew on survey data from 27,000 individuals (as well as mortality data from the staggering 3,600 participants who died over the six years it ran), and demonstrated that there were no benefits to consuming supplements. Any participants who reaped the rewards of Vitamin A, Vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper only did so because they got those nutrients from the food they ate. 

To the extent that supplements played a role in health—specifically prolonging one’s life—the study suggests that it’s because their consumption tended to correlate with other behaviors and metrics related to positive health outcomes. Those who took supplements tended to eat more nutritious food (where their vitamins actually came from), were more likely to exercise, were less likely to smoke or drink alcohol, and generally had the kind of higher income levels that likely improved their access to quality medical care. Most of these correlations were similarly observed in the separate Council for Responsible Nutrition survey as well. 

In fact, the results of the study suggest that overreliance on supplements seems to do more harm than good. Those who took more than 1,000 milligrams of calcium in supplement form per day showed a greater likelihood of dying from cancer than those who did not. 

It’s worth noting that the study was based on self-reported survey data over a period of years, but the large sample size does suggest there’s some validity to its findings. So if you’re planning to live into your twilight years in good health, it’s going to take more than just popping the occasional multivitamin: you’re going to have to work for it. 

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