Do You Really Need to Take Multivitamins? Nutrition Experts Explain

Updated 08/25/17
a woman drinking a smoothie
The Chriselle Factor

For healthy and not-so-healthy eaters alike, the topic of multivitamins can be controversial and confusing. Many people who eat clean see a multivitamin as a way to amplify the results of their healthy diet, whereas those who don’t put as much focus on eating well figure taking one will help make up for any deficiencies their diet leaves them with. Others forgo them completely because they’ve heard that multivitamins don’t do anything. In reality, the truth is a combination of all three of these viewpoints, experts say. Vitamins are more like gap-fillers than cure-alls, and you have to pick them carefully. Choosing a low-quality multivitamin has virtually no benefits, and no amount of supplementation can make up for a diet exclusively made up of pizza, french fries, and wine. (Bummer.)

Here’s what nutrition experts had to say about the multivitamin debate, plus their tip on how to pick one if you do choose to take them.

Do Most People Need a Multivitamin?

It depends on how you eat. “You probably don’t need multivitamins if you are eating a balanced diet of organic, mineral-rich whole foods—lots of vegetables, fruits, healthy whole grains, legumes, and some raw, sprouted nuts and seeds,” says Wendy Cohen, RDN, a holistic dietitian-nutritionist, and whole well-being expert. That being said, not so many people in the U.S. get all the nutrients they need from food. “We have a S.A.D. situation in America, and it’s our Standard American Diet (SAD),” says Robert Graham, MD, co-founder of FRESH Med NYC at Physio Logic. “Most Americans do not meet recommendations for many nutrients and vitamins from their diets. Some agencies like the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) estimate up to 40% of people fall short in vitamins like B12,” he explains. So basically, unless you’re really conscious of what you’re eating, it’s possible that you need something extra to supplement your diet with. Still, it’s better to try to get the nutrients you need from food first before you look into supplementation.

The bottom line? “Multivitamins can fill in some of the gaps where our diets lack and help us achieve optimum health,” Wendy Kaplan, RDN, oncology, and weight management dietitian says. “But taking one daily is not the extra insurance needed in lieu of an overall healthy eating pattern and lifestyle.”

Do They Work?

You’ve probably heard that there’s no point in taking a multivitamin because they just get flushed out of your system. This is true and not true, depending on the vitamins you take. “When it comes to dietary supplements, safety, and quality matters,” Graham says. “Some vitamins and minerals will get ‘flushed out’ of your system, particularly if they are water-soluble.” The thing is, some vitamins and minerals are meant to be excreted, so that’s not such a big deal in some cases. On the flip side, the whole point of taking vitamins is to be healthier, right? Well, “there’s no evidence that multivitamin-takers live longer than those who don’t take multivitamins,” Kaplan points out. “Also, there is no research that shows you will recover more quickly from illness by taking multivitamins. The jury is still out on the role multivitamins play in disease prevention.”

Get a Blood Panel First

Before taking any supplement, including multivitamins, it’s best to check in with your doctor to find out what your nutritional needs are. “It’s always a good idea to have your doctor do a blood panel check prior to taking a multivitamin, not because there is a downside to taking one, but rather to see if you fall short on any micronutrients,” Kaplan explains. Unfortunately, eating super healthy doesn’t always guarantee you’re getting what you need. “Blood test results will help serve as a guide for further action and in helping select the appropriate multivitamin supplement.” It’s tough to decide which ingredients and nutrients are essential if you don’t know what you’re deficient in (if anything).

If You Eat Vegan, Gluten-Free, or Paleo

While it’s true that our bodies prefer to get nutrients from food rather than supplements, it’s sometimes just not possible. “Following certain restrictive eating styles, like vegan, Paleo, and gluten-free, increases the risk of nutrient deficiencies,” Kaplan says. “Vegans need to supplement with vitamin B12 and possibly with vitamin D, calcium, and iron. Paleo followers are not eating whole grains, dairy, and legumes, and therefore may be lacking some B-vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D. The gluten-free diet, although a necessity for some, may also bring on nutritional deficits in folate, B-vitamins, iron, and calcium.” Many of these deficiencies can be solved with a quality multivitamin, although in some cases, a targeted supplement makes more sense.

How to Choose

Unfortunately, the vitamin and supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA, which means that pretty much anything goes when it comes to formulating them. Consequently, you have to be your own best advocate when it comes to picking one. “Shop safely, choose wisely, read labels, and research the company’s ethos,” Cohen advises. “Steer clear of buying multivitamins that contain synthetic fillers, binders, preservatives, artificial colors, hydrogenated oils, soy, dairy, gluten, shellfish, and other questionable ingredients. Your body won’t recognize these man-made multivitamins. You’ll end up wasting your money, excreting expensive urine, and ingesting a pill full of chemicals.” She also notes that the word “natural” on a vitamin bottle doesn’t carry much weight.

So how can you know you’re getting good quality? “Always compare labels to find a multivitamin with the most nutrients,” Graham suggests. You should be looking for around 100% of the daily recommended value of each nutrient listed, but generally not more than 100%. “Additionally, I recommend using Consumer Lab to verify quality and safety of supplements,” Graham says. “At the very least, look for USP and or NSF stamps of approval. That means it has been certified.”

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