We all try to eat right, exercise more, eliminate stress, and get better sleep…you know the drill. But sometimes, even when we are doing our best, we need a boost; we need to increase our body’s wellness and dietary deficiencies that come from a busy life. That’s where supplements come in. In order to fill our nutrient gaps, most of us have looked to the once-a-day multivitamin for help. About 33% of adults in the US take them – that number increases to 40% for adults aged 71+. But the question remains, do they really help? Let’s start with some facts.
What exactly is a multivitamin?
It’s a dietary supplement that contains a combination of multiple vitamins and/or minerals and are usually taken once per day. Because there are many nutrients in each tablet or capsule, the amount of each of these individual nutrients is fairly small – usually, no more than 100% of the daily recommended intake for any given nutrient.
Note: there are many, many different kinds of multivitamins available for sale – the nutrients may be in different amounts, and some may contain other ingredients like herbs, so always read the label.
Why would you take them?
According to a report from Oregon State University, “About 75% of the US population do not consume the recommended intake of fruit, and more than 80% do not consume the recommended intake of vegetables.” The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that nutrients that are often under-consumed included vitamin D, calcium, potassium, fibre, and iron. In addition, research shows that adults with high intakes of added sugar in the diet had lower intakes of many micronutrients, especially vitamin A, C, E, and the mineral magnesium.
The idea behind them is that, since studies show there are several nutrients that are insufficient or deficient in the average person’s diet, it may be prudent to take a multivitamin. Many people highly recommend them and take them daily. However, they are not without controversy. There are many people who swear they do nothing but give you expensive urine.
Here are the basic benefits and risks so you, along with your healthcare practitioner, can decide if you will benefit from taking multivitamins.
Benefits of a Multivitamin
The number one thing to know about multivitamins (the low-dose supplements with multiple vitamins and minerals mixed together) – is that they are generally safe for healthy people. Some studies show that multivitamins may reduce the overall risk of cancer in some men (even if they don’t reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancers in most healthy people who take them).
When it comes to older adults, those who are alcohol-dependent and those with age-related macular degeneration may benefit from multivitamins containing certain antioxidants. Plus, many adults 50 years and older can benefit from taking one that contains appropriate amounts of vitamin B12.
Note: Researchers found that the people who tend to take multivitamins happen to also be the people who are less likely to benefit from them. Multivitamin users tend to be health-conscious people who often have more nutritious diets than the “average” person and are less likely to have many nutrient deficiencies.
Let’s talk about the risks
It’s possible, depending on the nutritious and fortified foods you eat, taking supplements may throw off the balance of certain nutrients. This happens particularly with minerals, where too much of one can reduce absorption of another one, thus throwing off the balance. If this goes on for too long, a possible risk is that multivitamins contribute to raising some of your vitamin or mineral levels to be too high overall, risking toxicity (yes, too much of certain nutrients can be toxic!).
Plus, there are some supplements that can interact with medications.
Should you take a multivitamin?
There may be certain instances when multivitamins or even higher-dose vitamins or minerals may be necessary. These may be due to limiting certain foods (e.g. people who don’t eat any animal products) or having a health condition that interferes with nutrient absorption (e.g. some gut issues like Crohn's).
Because the research doesn’t show clear health benefits in most people, taking multivitamins should be decided along with your healthcare practitioner – especially as we age and other health conditions become more prevalent. Consider your health, diet, lifestyle, and medications to come up with a plan that’s right for you. Of course, taking supplements should never be a replacement for a healthy whole foods diet and healthy lifestyle.