Theoretically, there are many great reasons to use multivitamins. Vitamins and minerals are actually crucial to our health and can make a huge difference to our energy levels, our well-being and our longevity. From vitamin C, which helps us to fight colds and boost our immunity, to calcium which strengthens our bones and our muscle contractions, to vitamin D which acts as a master switch for many hormones; every nutrient found in our diet plays some kind of critical role and many of us just aren’t getting enough of them.
On the other-hand though, there are also a lot of problems with your typical multivitamin and some people question whether they in fact work at all. Some nutritionists debate whether they can be effectively absorbed and used by the body and whether they may carry more risks than benefits.
In this article, we’re going to examine the multivitamin in detail and explore whether or not it actually works as well as how you should go about choosing the best one.
What Do Multivitamins Do?
Multivitamins aim to help us get more nutrition in our diet and this is a good aim. Unfortunately, a great many of us simply don’t consume enough nutrients in our daily regime and instead sustain ourselves on a lot of empty calories like chips, soda drinks and sweets. Even those of us who make an effort to eat fruit and vegetables might not be getting some of the more exotic nutrients which appear to have transformative effects in a number of studies.
There are at least 40 plus nutrients that you should be aiming to get each day and when you do get all that nutrition, you’ll find yourself feeling more energetic, stronger, healthier and less susceptible to illness.
This is especially true as many of us are deficient in a number of critical nutrients. The 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans found that calcium, vitamin D, potassium and dietary fiber were all ‘nutrients of concern for inadequate intake in adults and children’. All of these can be found in multivitamins except the fiber. For this reason, more than 40% of men and women report that they take some kind of multivitamin.
Do Multivitamins Work?
The concern though, is that a multivitamin might not be as effective as getting those same nutrients from food. This is because there is likely a synergy that comes from consuming certain nutrients together, while others can hamper the absorption of one another. Another benefit of getting nutrients from food is that they can be digested at the same time as carbohydrates and fiber all of which works together to improve absorption. Different nutrients absorb at different rates and it may be that there are simply too many factors for a man-made product to be anywhere near as effective as real food.
Some experts warn that some consumers might ‘replace’ their usual intake of fruits and vegetables with a multivitamin and thereby actually damage their nutrient intake.
With that said, studies do suggest that multivitamins have at least some positive effects on the body and it seems highly likely that at least a good amount of many of the nutrients make it to the bloodstream.
Studies have looked at the effect that taking a multivitamin can have on the risk of heart disease with mixed results (1, 2, 3). Some studies also suggest that multivitamin use may be protective against cancer (4, 5), while others have been less positive. Then there are studies that suggest multivitamins might improve mood, eye health, memory and more (6, 7, 8).
Unfortunately, it is very hard to test the effect of multivitamins on general health. This is due to the fact that the best benefits of supplements like these are cumulative and take a long time to show. This makes it even harder to isolate the effects of the multivitamins and thereby rule out the possibility that other factors (like diet and exercise) are playing a role.
Recently, a supplement has made it to market that claims to offer all of the nutrition that the human body needs. This is a meal replacement product called ‘Soylent’ and it is essentially an ‘all-in-one’ supplement that individuals should be able to ‘live off’ in the absence of food.
There have been no formal studies on Soylent and many health experts have expressed serious concern regarding its safety. However, there have been a number of informal tests and individual reports that have shown the substance to be somewhat effective in that goal. One individual recently survived on Soylent for one week and found that they felt fine and that many markers in their blood tests actually improved. This shows it’s at least possible theoretically to get nutrition from a supplement. (Though it’s worth pointing out that the Soylent does contain some ingredients like rice that would constitute ‘food’).
Are Multivitamins Safe?
Another concern is whether or not multivitamins are safe. And the answer to that is for the most part, yes.
Most vitamin and mineral supplements don’t contain enough of any ingredients to post a potential risk. However, on top of a nutrient-rich diet it is possible that a multivitamin supplement could lead to an overdose in some ingredients.
That’s because vitamins can be broken down into two groups:
- Water soluble – Meaning that any excess amounts are expelled by the body.
- Fat soluble – Meaning that the body doesn’t have an easy way to get rid of the ingredients and that they might be able to build up over time.
Fat soluble vitamins include vitamin A, D, E and K among others. Vitamin E and K are generally non-toxic while vitamin D toxicity is incredibly rare. Vitamin A toxicity can occasionally occur however. Mineral over-dose is more concerning on the other hand, with overdoses in iron or calcium have potentially serious side effects.
There are also some individuals who should avoid certain vitamins and minerals in their products. For example, smokers should try and avoid vitamin A or beta-carotene which can increase the likelihood of lung cancer (9). This is a minor risk however, so you might still decide to take it for the other benefits.
For the most part though, most people can safely take a multivitamin and not worry about any negative health effects. A vitamin A overdose is still highly unlikely, while most products won’t contain dangerously high amounts of calcium or iron.
What’s more is that there are some groups of people who can stand to get a lot of benefit from these supplements. The elderly for instance can benefit from extra vitamin B12 (absorption decreases with age) as well as calcium, magnesium and vitamin D for strengthen the bones. Women will benefit from extra iron during menstruation, while vegans and vegetarians should supplement with vitamin B12, calcium, zinc, iron, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acid to make up for some of the nutrients absent in their diets.
And most people will probably find that multivitamins do benefit them overall. Few of us manage to eat the balanced diet that we know we should and as such, it certainly can’t hurt to give ourselves a little bit of a fighting chance – especially when you consider the profound benefits that something like vitamin B complex or magnesium can have on your neurotransmitters, brain power and metabolism.
But how do you choose the right one?
How to Choose a Multivitamin
The first thing to look at when choosing your multivitamin is the amount of each vitamin and mineral in the product. This will be listed in MG as well as a percentage of your DV (daily value). 100% of your DV means you’re meeting the minimum recommendation for that nutrient but you may get more benefit in some cases by going higher.
Take a look at which vitamins and minerals are fat soluble and which are water soluble. You can get away with consuming more water soluble vitamins but should avoid getting too much of anything that is going to build up in your body.
Certainly make sure that the product you’re looking conveys the precise measurements of each of the ingredients included. Be very wary of anything that calls itself a ‘proprietary blend’ or that lists the ingredients without saying how much of each is going in. Try to avoid very cheap products or those that come from non-established brands – sometimes lower quality manufacturers will include more of specific nutrients than they intend due to faulty production. Seek out brands that you recognize, read reviews and be willing to spend a little extra.
That said, bear in mind that a multivitamin is something you might be taking indefinitely. If you can only afford to take it for a month or two, then there’s not a whole lot of point!
Think too about which minerals and vitamins you can specifically benefit from and which ones will most complement your lifestyle and your current diet. Most of us don’t need to increase the minerals and nutrients we can get easily through our diet. Meanwhile, some people might benefit more from supplements that provide them with extra energy, while others will benefit more from those that help to strengthen their immune system.
How to Take a Multivitamin
To get the most from your multivitamin or mineral tablet, it’s always important to read the directions. Some supplements are best taken with meals, while others are most effective on an empty stomach. This is important to get right as it will greatly affect the absorption of the nutrients and thereby the effectiveness. Fat soluble vitamins and minerals need to be taken along with some source of dietary fat.
Some supplements even come with multiple tablets or pills to be taken separately at different points throughout the day. This is true for ‘Animal Pack’ for instance, which is a multivitamin aimed at athletes (though this particular supplement is somewhat controversial due to the very high quantities of vitamins and minerals it includes).
In terms of the time of day, it’s generally considered best to take these supplements in the morning with or before breakfast. This improves the chance of absorption along with all the food you consume through the rest of the day.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of supplements other than multivitamins can also be very helpful. If you’re looking to generally improve your health, your energy levels and your mood then you can also benefit from additional supplements such as omega 3 fatty acid, amino acids etc. As mentioned earlier, fiber is also one of the ‘at risk’ nutrients that many Americans fail to get enough of in their diet.
In general, it’s very beneficial to improve your intake of nutrients one way or another and consuming a multi-mineral and/or multivitamin might well be one of the best ways to do this. However, there is no substitute for getting nutrition from your diet so you need to ensure that any supplementation is on top of a healthy and balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner.