For some, taking a multivitamin is a long-instated habit implemented as part of an everyday health routine, a handy little pill designed to deliver a plethora of vitamins and nutrients your body may be lacking. And while this may be an act of good measure or a result of years of conditioning (remember Flintstones vitamins?), it begs the question: Do you actually need to take a multivitamin? Well, it seems the answer it not so cut and dry as there’s a hefty amount of opinions out there about whether or not you actually need these magical pills.
To start, Dr. Erin Barrett explains that your body makes many of the things it needs to carry out its functions, “but there are some things that our bodies just can’t make, like vitamins, minerals, omega-3s and some amino acids — which are the building blocks of protein.” These nutrients are considered essential because our bodies need them to survive, but also because our bodies can’t make them, which means we must somehow work them into our diet.
Despite your diet and efforts to eat healthy, Barrett shares that up to 90% of people aren't getting what they need from the food they eat. This explains why so many people rely on supplements such as multivitamins to give their body nutrients. But in some cases it’s unnecessary for an individual to take a multivitamin. Registered dietitian Jean Hanks shares that those with no significant dietary restrictions who eat a varied healthy diet do not need to take a multivitamin as they are likely properly nourishing their bodies with food.
But how do you know if you should be taking a multivitamin? Ahead, a few experts help unpack this hot topic once and for all.
What Is A Multivitamin?
Multivitamins serve as a dietary supplement containing water-soluble vitamins (all eight B vitamins and C), fat-soluble vitamins (A, D , E, K), and minerals (iron, zinc, calcium, selenium, copper, manganese, chromium, iodine, potassium, molybdenum and magnesium). You can often find them in the form of tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids. Nutritionist Melissa Morris likes to think of a multivitamin as an extra insurance policy. “While it should not replace a healthy diet, it can be a supplement to a healthy diet,” she adds, “A multivitamin can help you get the nutrients that might be missing from your foods or beverages.”
Who Do They Benefit?
Those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, and those who avoid dairy might need the assistance of a multivitamin supplement to help ensure they are getting enough iron, B12 and vitamin D. But, taking a specific supplement to address those targeted concerns or deficiencies would be more productive than taking a multivitamin, shares Hank, as you man not need everything in a catch-all pill.
For example, as you age, your body may not absorb vitamins and minerals as well, Morris shares, so a multivitamin may be essential at this point (as instructed by a medical professional of course). A multivitamin is also recommended by doctors for women before they get pregnant and during their pregnancy to ensure they’re getting enough nutrients.
Also, if your diet is less than nutrient-rich (think full of processed, refined, and sugar-filled foods), you may be lacking essential nutrients as well. So, a multivitamin could ensure you’re properly fueling your body and getting all of the vitamins you need.
To really get to the bottom of whether you’re the right candidate for a multivitamin, it’s best to consult with your doctor. They will be able to check the amount of certain nutrients in your blood. While there really are no tell-tale symptoms of whether or not your body is in serious need of vitamins and minerals, feeling more fatigued than normal is often a key indicator.
Make Sure You Choose The Right Multivitamin
If you look down the vitamin aisle in any drug store, you’ll notice the wide variety of supplements you can choose from. While the more aesthetically pleasing or more popular ones may capture your attention, make sure you’re selecting a brand that is third-party tested. This will ensure that your product actually is made of what’s listed on the label, and not contaminated with possible harmful substances.
Hanks shares that it’s a good idea to avoid gummy versions of vitamins, as these tend to have added sugars and extra ingredients like sodium and dyes that are not necessary. “Also, multivitamins with any herbs or extracts should be avoided unless cleared with a doctor, as these are not as well researched.” Looking for a USP verification (meaning that a supplement is pure and actually contains what the bottle says), is also important when taking a multivitamin. Hanks says you should also steer clear of megadoses of vitamins (over 100% of the RDA) as there is no benefit to overdoing it with the vitamins, and in some cases, too much of a nutrient can be harmful.
So, Do You Really Need to Take a Multivitamin?
Well, this depends. Hanks says that she follows the “food first” approach to health. “With some exceptions, humans can get all of the vitamins and minerals they need from food alone,” she shares. Taking a multivitamin can cover the bases and generally won’t be harmful, it’s really not necessary if you’re intentional about following a diet that is varied and full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and animal products. “Multivitamins should not be used in place of consuming foods like fruits and vegetables, because with these foods comes fiber, water and antioxidants that pills obviously do not have,” Hanks says.
There’s been a handful of studies on whether or not taking a daily multivitamin provides benefits to your body and protects your health. But, despite claims that multivitamins are good for your health, they aren't entirely backed by research. Hanks says this is due to the supplement industry doing a great job at marketing the multivitamin. “I think consumers are swayed by the many “health benefits” that these products supposedly provide, and taking a pill that ‘covers all the bases’ for many people is a lot easier than putting effort into eating a balanced diet.” So while there isn't enough significant research on multivitamins, many doctors prescribe multivitamins or other supplements to patients instead of educating them about diet.
While there is no real harm in taking multivitamins, and they may provide potential benefits for your health, none of these benefits are certain — yet. As mentioned above, there are a specific group of people that would benefit from taking a daily multivitamin. But, for those who don’t have any significant dietary restrictions or have health issues that cause depletion of any essential nutrients, focusing on meeting nutritional needs with the food you are eating is ideal.
Your doctor or dietitian may recommend a supplement regimen tailored to any specific nutrients you are lacking — which may be more helpful than a generic multivitamin that contains extra nutrients you may not need. With any sort of supplement you’re taking, it’s important to speak with your doctor as they will be able to recommend a multivitamin that works best for you.