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Take a closer look at the conventional wisdom on multivitamins

For decades, the conventional wisdom suggested taking a daily multivitamin as a simple way to meet all of the body’s needs for essential vitamins and minerals. As recently as 2006, it was estimated that 39% of all American adults take a multivitamin supplement, making them the most popular type of dietary supplement in the US. However, there is still a lot of debate about how helpful multivitamins actually are.

Recently, researchers failed to find evidence that the daily use of a multivitamin provides any improvement on life expectancy, cancer incidence, cardiovascular disease or cognitive decline. Based on these and similar studies, some researchers have suggested that multivitamins should be avoided. Despite these findings, there are many physicians who stand by their recommendation that patients take a daily multivitamin.

Although scientists recognize that vitamins are useful when properly taken, there is disagreement on the appropriate circumstances and dosaging necessary to achieve benefits. With some studies showing that too much of certain vitamins can actually be harmful, it’s worth re-examining the question of whether you should take a multivitamin.

The origin of multivitamins: a brief history

Multivitamins first became available in the early 1940s. The early formulas were designed to fight diseases caused by serious nutritional deficiencies – diseases like scurvy, which is caused by vitamin C deficiency, and rickets, which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin D. Since then, years of research have investigated whether the increased nutrient intake from a multivitamin can actually improve health or prevent chronic disease.

Diet only goes so far in delivering your necessary nutrients

People who eat a healthy and varied diet, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and proteins, should get most of the essential nutrients they need. If you fall into this category, you may not benefit from a multivitamin. However, the reality is that many Americans don’t have an ideal diet, which is reflected in the prevalence of some specific deficiencies.

A 2011 study showed that over 70% of Americans do not get sufficient vitamin D, and over 60% do not get sufficient vitamin E. The same study also noted many Americans fail to consume sufficient amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and magnesium.

Specific populations may benefit from certain supplements because they are at higher risk of a particular deficiency, or because their requirements for a particular micronutrient are higher than average.

For example, women who may become pregnant are advised to take folate because it reduces the risk of specific birth defects. Older populations may be prone to vitamin B12 deficiency because the ability to absorb it from food diminishes with age. Certain gastrointestinal disorders, such as gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract that can also inhibit nutrient absorption.

These are all examples of highly specific dietary needs that may require vitamin or mineral supplementation in the absence of a well-balanced diet. However, this begs the question of whether a multivitamin is actually the best approach for addressing the highly unique nutritional needs of a specific individual.

There’s no single standard for multivitamins

In the United States, there is no regulatory definition for multivitamins and minerals, so they may contain any combination of vitamins, minerals, herbs, metabolites, or amino acids. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a wide range of variation in the contents of multivitamins. Their findings noted that multivtamins can actually pose the risk of excess intake of nutrients, particularly for vitamin A, zinc and iron.

With so many multivitamins available on the market, and few guidelines or regulations on what they contain, considerable research is required to understand what you are buying. Among the countless options, there are vast differences in the quality of ingredients, formulations, and production techniques. It is also difficult to compare nutritional content and understand how each would complement your particular diet and lifestyle.

Multivitamins: a one-size-fits-all approach

Multivitamins are a one-size-fits-all approach to dietary supplementation, which means they are not precisely tailored to your specific needs. The right combination of nutrients for you might be very different for someone with a different age, sex, medical history, and lifestyle.

In fact, there is evidence that some nutrients may be good for one person and harmful for a different individual. For example, folate--an important B-vitamin--is essential for pregnant women to prevent birth defects. However, a major study found that it increased the risk of prostate cancer in men.

In another study, beta-carotene and vitamin A, which are considered beneficial for vision, have been found to increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers. For these reasons, the National Institute of Health recommends that when choosing a multivitamin, people should try to find one tailored to their age, gender, and other characteristics.

Determining the vitamins and supplements that are right for you

Selecting individual vitamins and supplements to complement your diet is an even better way to tailor your vitamin regimen to your unique health needs. By thinking carefully about the nutrients your diet may be lacking, and considering lifestyle factors, you can likely determine if you are consuming too little of certain vitamins or minerals.

Other important factors to consider when choosing vitamin and mineral supplements are your health history and health goals. For example, you may be focused on heart health due to a family history of heart disease, or you may want to boost your energy, or sleep better.

There are specific vitamins and supplements that can help in these areas, but a multivitamin may not provide them in the necessary doses. Read on to learn two quick and easy ways to understand what vitamins and supplements are right for you.

Multivitamins or personalized vitamin regimens can help you meet your nutrition needs

Following a healthy diet can provide a lot of the basic nutrition you need. For most people, especially those with an imperfect diet or special nutritional needs, a multivitamin may be a convenient way to prevent nutritional deficiencies and promote general health. However, the primary drawback of multivitamins is they don’t take your personal diet and lifestyle into account.

If you are interested in a personalized strategy for your diet and lifestyle, consider consulting your physician, or taking an online assessment to identify your specific nutritional needs.