Vitamin use is growing around the world, and while there’s no question that certain vitamins are important supplements for people, there are definitely questions about who should be taking them, and how often. According to the U.S. Council for Responsible Nutrition, multivitamins are the most-consumed supplement among people in the U.S. It seems multivitamin use is rampant, but important questions have yet to be answered: are multivitamins helpful, and for whom?
What we know about the nutritional value of multivitamins
Unfortunately, the jury is still out on this one. All we can do is present the pros and cons for you to help you make your decision.
Prenatal vitamin: An important exception
Prenatal vitamins deliver essential nutrients like iron and folic acid (the synthetic form of folate). Unless otherwise notified, it’s recommended that, yes, women who are pregnant or who are trying to conceive take a prenatal vitamin.
Now, on to the other kinds of multivitamins.
The pros of taking a multivitamin
For those who are not trying to conceive, there are a few reasons why one might want to take a multivitamin.
- To fill in nutrition gaps: Research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows that the majority of Americans really aren’t eating enough nutritional foods. This leads to nutrition deficiencies that a multivitamin could potentially fix. If you’re concerned about the amount of essential vitamins and minerals that you get from your diet, a multivitamin could potentially help.
- To get certain nutrients for special conditions: Providers typically emphasize that people should get as many nutrients as possible from their diet. With certain conditions, though, a dietary supplement may be needed. In postmenopausal women, for example, vitamin D and calcium are sometimes recommended to help bone mineral density and prevent fractures. Another example is if you are considering pregnancy or are already pregnant. You may be recommended to take 400 mcg/day of folic acid, either from food or supplements.
The cons of taking a multivitamin
Clearly there are a few reasons why a multivitamin might be helpful for people. But despite this evidence, the case for multivitamins is still complicated.
- You have to watch your daily limits: In the case of certain nutrients, you’ll need to be careful to not take supplements and eat foods that also have a high amount of that vitamin or mineral. Over time, an excess of certain nutrients can have adverse effects on your health.
- No evidence shows that multivitamins protect against chronic disease: Many multivitamins claim that they can help prevent long-term diseases like cardiovascular disease or cancer. But many studies, particularly one from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, have found that there’s insufficient evidence to support this claim. So far, no evidence has confirmed that multivitamins can directly prevent chronic disease.
- They aren’t directly regulated by the FDA: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has guidelines for companies that manufacture supplements, but the FDA relies on the businesses to follow these guidelines. The FDA doesn’t directly approve products before they hit the market, and the FDA only tests a small percentage of products that are out there. So if you’re taking a multivitamin, you have to be careful about the kind that you purchase.
- Some multivitamins interact with certain medications: If you’re on medication to reduce blood clotting, for instance, a multivitamin might not be safe for you and you should consult with your provider to find a safe option.
- You might be less likely to stick to a healthy lifestyle: Statistically, people who take supplements tend to live a healthier lifestyle overall than those who don’t take them. But a multivitamin isn’t a cure-and-prevent-all: experts still warn against disregarding certain aspects of your health, especially cardiovascular disease prevention. If your provider agrees that a multivitamin would be good for you, make sure you continue to eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.
With all of this in mind, you’re probably still weighing the options – and if there’s one thing all this research shows, it’s that the experts still are too. Researchers at Harvard have the following advice for anyone considering a multivitamin:
Ask your healthcare provider for their opinion – really, this is what they’re there for! Plus, you should always check with your provider before adding supplements to your diet.
Consider your diet and whether or not you seem to be missing anything (leafy greens, fruit, calcium sources, etc.).
Make an appointment with a dietician.
If you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, speak with your provider about the benefits of taking a prenatal vitamin.
Finally, don’t forget the single piece of advice that every expert out there agrees on regarding nutrients and supplementation: For most people, the absolute best way to get nutrients is from eating a balanced, well-rounded diet.
- “Do multivitamins make you healthier?” Health.harvard.edu. Harvard Men’s Health Watch, Harvard University, Mar 2014. Web. Accessed 10/26/17. Available at https://www.health.harvard.edu/mens-health/do-multivitamins-make-you-healthier.
- “Is There Really Any Benefit to Multivitamins?” HopkinsMedicine. The Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Health System, n.d. Web. Accessed 10/26/17. Available at http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/is-there-really-any-benefit-to-multivitamins.
- Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. “Multivitamins — Are they the best thing for you?” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Mar 2008. Web. Accessed 10/26/17. Available at https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-blog/multivitamins/bgp-20056285.