Ask LH: Do I Really Need To Take A Multivitamin?

Dear Lifehacker, I want to eat a healthy, balanced diet, but does that actually include a multivitamin? If I eat well, shouldn't I get the nutrients I need by default? I assume a multivitamin won't hurt me, but I don't want to bother if it isn't necessary. So should I take a daily multivitamin or not? Thanks, Vexed By Vitamins

Title image from The Matrix. Other photos by me.

Dear Vexed,

We all want a simple diet, but unfortunately those two concepts rarely match up. Although multivitamins can provide health benefits, they can cause problems as well. Ultimately you should speak with your doctor or a registered dietician about any significant health choices you make. We spoke to Doctor Carly Stewart, medical expert at Money Crashers, to get some general advice.

The Pros And Cons Of Multivitamins

According to Dr Stewart, multivitamins offer a number of health benefits:

Multivitamins give people sufficient amounts of both vitamins and minerals that their current diet may not be providing. They can improve many bodily functions and assist with mental health. They can also help decrease stress.

That said, taking them can make us a little less diligent:

Taking multivitamins can cause people to pay less attention to their diets. Every effort should be made to get as many vitamins and minerals out of actual foods as possible.

Dr Stewart notes that multivitamins cause the largest problem when they provide too much of something we don't need:

One of the biggest risks of taking multivitamins is that you may be ingesting too much of a particular vitamin, depending upon what your diet consists of. Some vitamins, if taken at a high level, will simply pass through the body without any negative effects. But both Vitamins A and D, which are fat soluble, build up in the body's tissue if too much is taken. Taking too much Vitamin A can increase the risk of osteoporosis, and taking too much Vitamin D can damage both the kidneys and blood vessels.

Again, we recommend discussing any important health choice with your doctor. You want to avoid taking vitamins you don't need and causing severe issues. It's also important to monitor and understand what you eat so you know when you're ingesting too much of a particular vitamin. Keep yourself informed and you'll stay safe.

How To Choose A Multivitamin

If you choose to take a multivitamin, how do you pick the right one? Dr Stewart offers a few guidelines:

Consumers should stay away from multivitamins that contain more than 100 per cent of any daily recommended dosages, as that can cause vitamin toxicity. Most multivitamins are geared towards either men, women, or even the elderly. Consumers should choose a multivitamin based on their age and sex. For those who have difficulty swallowing large pills, gel-coated capsules and liquid vitamins are also available.

You'll want to consider your specific situation when choosing a vitamin as well. For example, prenatal vitamins exist for pregnant women to provide additional nutrients they may need during their pregnancy. Dr Stewart explains:

The type of multivitamin does matter, depending upon your personal situation. Women who are or looking to become pregnant should take a multivitamin high in folic acid and iron, which can help prevent birth defects. Women in general should consider a multivitamin with Vitamin D and calcium, which can stave off osteoporosis. Most seniors need a multivitamin with higher levels of Vitamin D, which improves bone strength.

There's no real substitute for a varied, healthy diet, but if that's hard to achieve, multivitamins may help. Pick what suits you best based on your doctor's recommendations and it'll help provide what you're missing.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    That's interesting. I have always wondered about this. I take Centrum as an example every morning but not really knowing if its actually benefiting me. Reason for taking them:
    I am dieting and this provides me with the extras I need. However I have come to a point now where going to the gym gives me more of an energy boost than a multivitamin. Should I then consider stop taking them?

      Multivitamins aren't meant to give an energy boost (although, the packaging sometimes claims otherwise), multivitamins, in your case, are to replace what you aren't getting with your current diet.

    Simple answer should be "No" with the caveat "Eat better" and with the extended explanation "people lived a healthy life before these pills existed, they can survive without them as well."

    I believe 90% to 95% of the vitamin industry is a total scam.

      I'm going to go with 99.999% being a scam.

      While the multivites do contain X amount of vitamins and shown against the RDI, realistically your body can't absorb even a fraction of them before they are expelled through your urine.

      I've found it rare for anyone to be recommended to take any supplements by their doctor, in either pill or liquid form. The few times that I've seen people being prescribed supplements they were administered intravenously.

      Personally I'm going to go with what my GP says (and prior GPs have said) and not waste a cent on supplements and instead eat an orange.

    They're supplements, meaning that if you're eating a healthy, balanced diet, then you don't need to be taking multivitamins too.

    As someone who is unable to eat a "healthy, balanced" diet due to some peculiar food allergies/ intolerances (as in, conditions diagnosed through consultation with a GP and after some investigative surgery from a specialist), I feel I should point out that for some, an less than optimally healthy diet isn't an option.

    I don't take multivitamins every day, but when I start to feel that my body is getting out of whack, I do put myself on a course of them for a few weeks. I don't need my specialist to tell me that being on a not-much-better-than-bread-and-water-diet means I need to compensate with vitamin supplements.

    I tend to pick whichever supplement is for men, and on discount.

    Back in 2011, I wrote a post for Simple Green Frugal about a study just published in a peer reviewed journal, that followed a sample of nearly 39,000 older American women all the way from 1986 till now, and came to the conclusion that “several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk”. Increased. It's not alone. A study of 161,808 participants over 8 years in the Women’s Health Initiative clinical trials ”provided convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD [cardiovascular disease], or total mortality in postmenopausal women.” A study of 182,099 participants enrolled in the Multiethnic Cohort Study after 11 years of follow-up found “no associations were found between multivitamin use and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer”. And yet the vitamin industry is worth billions, and Australians gripe about the cost of real food.

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