The content of this article was originally published on the Fit in a Fat World blog in March 2013. It has been updated to reflect current views and research.
What are multivitamins?
Multivitamins, available in the form of tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids, contain an assortment of vitamins and minerals each included at a dose below the tolerable upper level (eliminating the danger of toxicity). Many of the multivitamin supplements on the market today contain synthetic/isolated/partial vitamins and minerals that lack the synergistic antioxidants and enzymes that are typically delivered with whole foods in the diet. Most over-the-counter multivitamins are also labeled to target different consumer sectors, such as prenatal, children, over 50+, men’s, women’s, etc (which is a total money-grab by pharmaceutical companies).
What are the benefits of taking a multivitamin?
First things first: Multivitamins are not a replacement for a healthy diet, nor do they make up for unhealthy eating. If you believe you should be supplementing with a multivitamin, you should first assess your current diet and do whatever you can to ensure that you are getting as many vitamins and minerals from whole food sources. Food sources of vitamins and minerals contain more compounds that act together to offer benefits and increased absorption that pills most often cannot match. With this being said, whether it’s through food or supplements, providing your body with optimal levels of vitamins and minerals has a significant number of health benefits including:
– Increased immune function
– Improvements in overall health
– Disease prevention
– Improved cognitive function
– Improved energy levels
– Healthy sleep patterns
What does the research say?
As with most topics, you can find studies that support the use of multivitamins, and studies that do not. I like to pair up research with the experiences of myself and my clients, and cross-reference those findings with common sense.
In the world of nutrition, people think in black and white: either something is awesome and it works, or it’s crap and it doesn’t. The reality is that most things are grey and far from extreme. When it comes to nutrients the general assumption is that more is better, but despite a large volume of research there is little-to-no evidence that exceeding an adequate intake of essential vitamins and minerals is in any way beneficial. If this were the case, people who take multivitamins would be glaringly healthier than others and there would be no debate. If multivitamins are helpful it’s to very small degree, and most evidence suggests that they add little or no value to the average diet. My concluding statement would be:
If you can afford multivitamins, save your money and spend it to improve the quality of the food that you eat.
Who, if anyone, should be taking a multivitamin supplement?
There are special populations who have more need for supplementation than others, but even in those cases, supplementing with a direct vitamin/mineral would be more effective than relying on a one-size-fits-all pill:
- In many cases, pregnant women require folic acid supplementation to prevent neural tube defects in infants. Many folic acid supplements are “multivitamins”, so this is the strongest case for MV supplementation.
- People who live in dark, cold climates will often become vitamin D deficient (for example, Canada during the winter). It’s more effective to supplement with vitamin D directly than it is to take a multivitamin.
- Vegetarians and vegans require supplemental B12, but that’s better achieve with a pure B12 or B-complex supplement.
- Competitive athletes who train incredibly hard may require supplementation, but this is case-by-case and each athlete will have different needs. Identifying specific deficiencies and targeting them at the root is a better approach.
- If you feel like you need a multivitamin, this is the first clue that you’re not doing enough to counterbalance stress and that you’re looking for a quick fix. Quick fixes don’t exist in health in nutrition.
- If you eat well but feel bad, don’t run out and buy a multivitamin. Instead, consult your physician and run some blood work. There could be an underlying problem.
- Important vitamins and minerals that most often become depleted include: Vitamin D (not enough sun), magnesium (athletes), & B-vitamins (stress). It will always be more efficient to tackle these sorts of deficiencies directly than it will to take a multivitamin.
As with most things in life, if marketing makes something sound like it will solve several problems at once, it’s probably total crap. Health has never come in a pill, and although they’re working on it, we’re not there yet. Eat foods in their natural state, move daily, and you’ll never feel like you need a pill to get through the day.