Should You Take a Multivitamin? We Asked a Doctor

To multivitamin or not to multivitamin?

It seems like common sense that taking a daily multivitamin is a smart move if you wish to stay healthy. A quick stroll down any pharmacy aisle turns up a dazzling array of bottles proclaiming to help with everything from anti-aging to cancer prevention. But how many of us know if we truly need to take a multivitamin?

Should everyone take a multivitamin, regardless of age and health status, or are these tablets only providing a false sense of security about our health? And how do we go about choosing the right vitamin for our needs if we decide to use supplements? We tapped Baltimore-based internal medicine physician Vivek Cherian, MD, to gain insight into the complicated multivitamin conundrum.

Are Multivitamins Good for You?

Nearly half of adults in the U.S. take a daily multivitamin; that number increases to 70 percent for adults over 70 years old. But does that mean a multivitamin should be part of everyone's daily health regimen? According to Dr. Cherian, the answer isn't a simple yes or no.

"Most people take vitamins because they want to be on top of their health and make sure they're getting all the vitamins they need, in case they aren't getting enough from their regular diets," Cherian explains. "It may seem like common sense to be taking multivitamins, but there actually isn't much evidence that a daily cocktail of essential vitamins and minerals actually delivers what you expect."

Most studies have found no significant benefit from taking a daily multivitamin to protect the brain or heart or prevent cancer. Despite the general claims that multivitamins are good for X or Y health goals, these are not necessarily backed by research yet.

That said, Dr. Cherian adds there's no harm in taking multivitamins (they aren't "bad" for you), and the potential benefits may make them worth taking for some people. "Whenever my patients ask me about taking multivitamins, I tell them to consider taking one daily because there may in fact be benefits (though they have not been proven at this time) and there are no known risks to taking a daily multivitamin," Cherian says. "Multivitamins may help improve your memory and mood. Additionally, antioxidant vitamins and minerals may help slow the progression of certain diseases that cause blindness." The point: While the benefits are not yet proven, that doesn't mean they may not exist.

Who Do They Benefit?

If the consensus is that the risks are low, but the (potential) benefits are unproven, would certain individuals benefit from taking a multivitamin? According to Dr. Cherian, people who eat a healthy, balanced diet that incorporates whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins, will likely obtain all the necessary vitamins, and a multivitamin won't be very beneficial.

Unfortunately, this does not cover everyone. "A large percentage of Americans, however, don't get enough vitamin D and vitamin E only from their diet, so a multivitamin can be beneficial," Cherian explains. It can be hard to get the recommended amount of vitamin D and E through food alone, and vitamin D deficiency is especially problematic in populations that live in places with less sunlight during the winter. A multivitamin that includes these essential vitamins can help protect immune health and bone strength.

Additionally, certain groups of individuals are also more prone to nutritional deficiencies. "Taking certain medications can lead to vitamin and or mineral deficiencies. To name some examples, commonly prescribed for high blood pressure (diuretics) can lead to low potassium, magnesium, and calcium levels. Certain acid reflux medications can also reduce the absorption of vitamin B12," says Dr. Cherian. Other groups of people that may require help reaching their nutritional needs include:

  • Pregnant individuals: "Folate (Vitamin B9) is particularly important during the early stages of pregnancy to help assure proper development of the baby and decrease the chance of certain birth defects such as spina bifida. Prenatal vitamins contain this vitamin as well as other important nutrients for pregnancy."
  • Older adults: "Vitamin B12 absorption can decrease with age, and older adults may need more calcium and vitamin D."
  • Vegans and vegetarians: "As vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal foods, those who follow plant-based diets are at a higher risk of deficiency of this vitamin."

Tips for Choosing a Vitamin

If you decide to take a multivitamin, the options can be overwhelming. Here are a few factors and tips to consider when choosing the right one.

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Consult with your doctor.

"Our need for nutrients varies [by individual]," Dr. Cherian says. Your doctor will help determine your nutritional requirements and help point you in the direction of the right vitamin.

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Choose one with 100 percent of the daily value of most of its ingredients.

There a few exceptions, though. "Some ingredients, such as magnesium and potassium levels, are kept low to avoid interactions, and calcium will be lower also simply to keep the pill reasonably sized," Dr. Cherian explains.

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Check the label for United States Pharmacopeia (USP) verification.

The USP is a nonprofit, independent organization that essentially determines whether supplements are pure and contain what they claim.

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Watch out for marketing gimmicks.

Be wary of general marketing statements on vitamin labels that don't carry scientific weight. These could include claims about increasing energy levels, improving specific things like hair and nails, or supporting brain health. Dietary supplements make extravagant claims to draw consumers in that are often not backed by research.

Your Optimal Health

Ultimately, taking a multivitamin is a personal choice you should make in partnership with your doctor based on your unique health and nutritional requirements. Whether you choose to do so or not, it's important to remember what a vitamin can do and what it cannot. "No multivitamin substitutes a proper, well-balanced diet," Dr. Cherian cautions. "Multivitamins are not any kind of silver bullet to achieve optimal health. Evidence that they improve health for people is inconsistent at best."

This isn't to say that multivitamins are bad, but that more research is required to truly understand the relationship between vitamin intake and overall health.

The risks of taking a multivitamin are low—Dr. Cherian chooses to take a multivitamin himself every day. But it is important to understand their limitations. While multivitamins pack many nutrients, your body may not need most of the contents. Dr. Cherian reminds us that if you have a specific nutrient deficiency, it's always best to supplement with that specific nutrient (e.g., vitamin D or B12). It's a more targeted way to meet your health goals and rebalance your body. Whatever you choose, always focus first and foremost on eating a well-balanced diet before supplementation.

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