The U.K. health service and the FDA in the U.S. currently advise expectant women to take folic acid and vitamin D

July 12, 2016
TIME Health

For decades, pregnant women have been advised to take prenatal vitamins in order to ensure that they get the nutrients the fetus needs for a healthy nine-month growing period. These vitamins typically contain folic acid, which is critical for neural development, and other B vitamins that can be hard to get from diet alone. But a slate of recent reports are casting some doubt on the advice that all pregnant women need all those other daily vitamins. That doesn’t mean pregnant women should ditch their prenatal, however.

“Although we say the western diet is poor, if we look at vitamin deficiency, it’s hard to demonstrate that people have vitamin deficiency. It takes someone to say, ‘Hello a minute, let’s unwrap this.’ What we discover is the emperor has no clothes; there isn’t a lot of evidence.”

Still, Dr. Scott Sullivan, director of maternal and fetal medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and a spokesperson for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), doesn’t agree that multivitamins are a complete waste of money. While ACOG doesn’t specifically advise women to take a panel of multivitamins, its list of suggested ones includes more than the U.K.’s minimalist list of just two.

Unlike the British authors, Sullivan says he doesn’t see the harm in pregnant women taking multivitamins since they do contain a range of nutrients. While there might not be solid scientific proof that they can benefit the fetus, there also isn’t strong evidence that they can be harmful. And instead of taking several different pills, a multi vitamin that includes an array of nutrients might make it easier for women to take regularly. “In the American market, the additional micronutrients in a prenatal vitamin does not increase the cost to the patient considerably,” he says. In fact, in an informal survey he did a few years ago of 42 different prenatal vitamins his patients were taking, he found that the more expensive brands were less likely to contain more of the claimed nutrients than cheaper varieties.

Because there isn’t the same type of high quality data supporting the effects of all of the nutrients in a typical multivitamin, Sullivan believes it doesn’t hurt to take one, as long as you’re aware that the studies don’t provide robust support of their benefits for pregnant women — and the cost isn’t a burden.

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