Last week the news that pregnant women don’t need vitamin supplements seemed to be all over social media. The articles were based on this review article published in the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin. The authors concluded that based on the evidence, much of which was from research in developing nations, that women (in Britain) do not need to take prenatal vitamins.
They reached this conclusion based on examining studies of the effects of folic acid, vitamin D, iron, vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin A supplementation on birth outcomes. While they concluded that multivitamin supplements are unnecessary for women during pregnancy, they stated that there was strong evidence to support women taking folic acid supplements and vitamin D supplements during pregnancy.
The message that came across most strongly (from the news articles) to me was that women are being shamed into purchasing vitamins that they can ill-afford, and don’t need, under the guise of wanting the best for their baby. The implications of these news articles concern me.
Firstly, women should be aware that many pharmacies (in Canada at least) have prenatal programs through which pregnant women can receive free multivitamin supplements, amongst other things. An inability to afford multivitamins should not prevent women from receiving them. Let’s not make this about drug companies trying to make money from poor women desperate to do the best for their unborn children. This should be about doing the best for women and their unborn children.
Okay, now that, that’s out of the way… I worry that the message that women should still be taking folic acid supplements and vitamin D supplements (and not just pregnant women I should add as most women of childbearing age should be taking folic acid supplements and most women in North America at least, should be taking vitamin D during the winter months) will be lost amid the cry that multivitamins are unnecessary. The message is not that all vitamin supplements are unnecessary for most Western women during pregnancy, just that the current evidence doesn’t support the use of multivitamins.
I’d also like to note that the researchers were focussing on birth outcomes. The conclusion that multivitamins are unnecessary was based on whether or not mums gave birth to healthy full-term babies. The authors did not take into consideration any potential long-term benefits maternal supplementation might have on their children. The authors did not take into consideration benefits that multivitamin supplementation might provide to mums. They did note that multivitamins can lower the mums risk of anemia, but as that didn’t seem to affect birth outcomes iron supplementation was deemed unnecessary. There are many other vitamins and minerals in multivitamins that the authors didn’t look at. Quite likely there’s not enough research on them to make a call either way. Regardless, the needs of pregnant women, not just their babies, should be taken into consideration when determining whether or not supplements are needed. Not all mums are going to get all the nutrients they need from food. Especially if they’re suffering from “morning” sickness. Perhaps not all mums will benefit from taking multivitamins. However, some very well may, and I think it would be a shame to tell them that they’re “wasting their money”.
Finally, as my friend Mark (who asked me to write about this topic) mentioned, taking two pills is more effort than taking just one. If it’s still being recommended that women take folic acid and vitamin D during pregnancy then they may as well just get those nutrients from a prenatal multivitamin rather than buying separate bottles of two supplements and having to remember to take both pills. It may be ever so slightly less expensive to buy vitamin D and folic acid instead of a multivitamin but I can’t even be certain of this because there was no folic acid for sale at my local grocery store when I went to price them all out. Which raises the issue of availability as well.
Women shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about not being able to afford a prenatal multivitamin. They also shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re wasting their money by buying them.