Wellness Tips: Multivitamins — Good Insurance Policy or a Waste of Money?

Should I be taking a daily multivitamin?

Raise your hand if a Fred and Wilma–shaped vitamin was part of your “breakfast” growing up. If so, you’re not alone – about 1 in 3 American kids take a daily multivitamin. And that ritual has continued on into adulthood for many.

From (pricey) pills to smoothie powders, multivitamins claim an entire aisle in most grocery stores and pharmacies. However, while the nutritional boost once seemed like a no-brainer, multivitamins have been at the center of controversy in recent years, leaving many people questioning the value of popping this daily big pill.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty, it’s important to understand that there are no standard requirements for multivitamin formulations. Products vary in composition of the type and amount of vitamins and minerals. So, label reading is incredibly important if you are taking a multivitamin to address any nutrient deficiencies or gaps in your diet.

Multivitamins are not necessarily a ticket to health — in most cases they appear to have a neutral effect. For example, one study shows no increase or decrease in risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease among people who took multivitamins. Other research indicates that multivitamins do not reduce the risk of disease. Some research has actually linked multivitamin use to increased risk of a chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease; however, it’s not a cause-and-effect relationship and we don’t know which comes first — the disease or the multivitamin use. That is, people who are sick might be more likely to take a multivitamin in an effort to improve their health.

However, in some cases, vitamin and mineral supplements may be more harmful than helpful. For example, one infamous study shocked the supplement world when it showed that beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A) supplementation actually increased risk of lung cancer among men and another linked high levels of vitamin E supplementation to increased risk of prostate cancer. So, more is not always better. Some vitamins can actually interfere with certain medications and medical treatments, so it’s always best to ask your doctor before starting a new supplement.

For most people, it’s possible to get everything you need from food, rendering multivitamins unnecessary. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins provides you with a range of nutrients. There are also many nutrients in food that aren’t found in a multivitamin (or other supplements) such as certain phytonutrients (found only in plants), so relying on a pill doesn’t make up for a poor diet. In addition, some nutrients are absorbed better when eaten together as food, meaning food as a whole is greater than the sum of all of its nutrients.

That said, if you have a known nutrient deficiency, either a single supplement or a multivitamin can be useful in boosting that nutrient’s status. Some nutrient deficiencies like iron or vitamin D can be identified through a simple blood test that your doctor can order. Others such as calcium are difficult to identify through a blood test, but a dietitian can help you determine if you’re at risk for a nutrient deficiency based on your health status, lifestyle, and diet. Knowing your specific needs is more effective than just taking a multivitamin as an insurance policy. For example, calcium supplements can inhibit iron absorption, so taking a multivitamin that has both may not be effective in boosting your iron stores if you’re anemic. In addition, it’s recommended that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding take a prenatal vitamin, which is a multivitamin designed specifically for the needs of a pregnant woman and her growing baby.

If you still want to take a multivitamin as an “insurance policy,” do your research to choose a safe option. Learn the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), the maximum amount considered safe, of each nutrient and make sure your multivitamin doesn’t exceed those limits (or, if you are taking another individual supplement) as high doses of certain vitamins can be toxic. The supplement industry is not well regulated and many pills have been found to contain things other than what they’re supposed to, so at the very least, look for a product that has been third-party verified such as NSF or Consumer Labs.

Spending your hard-earned money at the farmers market or in the produce aisle is likely to be much more effective in making you feel better short and long term than taking a pill of any kind. Take a food-first approach by consuming a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, and you will likely consume everything you need.

At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. That’s why we have a team of registered dietitian nutritionists ready to answer your nutrition questions about which food choices will help you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. Email your questions and feedback to nutrition@cafebonappetit.com.