Multivitamins are supplements that include a spectrum of vitamins, minerals and sometimes herbs, probiotics or enzymes. You can select from thousands of brands, tablets or capsules, liquid or powder, iron or iron-free, mens or womens, one-a-day or six-a-day, and the choices go on and on. Most people who decide to supplement their diet with a multivitamin believe they are doing a positive thing for their health or look upon it as a sort of "insurance" for possible missing nutrients in their diet. But are they necessary? Are they even beneficial? Could they perhaps be harmful?
When you read about the benefits of vitamins and minerals they sound like they do miraculous things. And they do. However, it is important to question whether taking a pill consisting of synthetic isolated vitamins is the answer. Ask yourself what exactly are these vitamins made of, are they the same as the vitamins in real foods, and what does the science say about their effectiveness.
Supplements are not regulated by the FDA. This means that you are putting your trust in the manufacturer that the multivitamins you are buying actually contain what the label says they do. ConsumerLab.com runs testing on supplements and found that one-third of multivitamins contained inaccurate amounts of vitamins stated on the label (sometimes more, sometimes less) or were contaminated with a dangerous substance like lead. Yikes.
Most scientific studies conclude that multivitamins offer no health benefits and some have even shown them to be harmful! For example, research has determined that high doses of vitamin A in supplement form can be dangerous. Folic acid is very different from folate which is naturally found in leafy greens and beans. In some studies, it has been associated with health issues. Isolated vitamins in a pill structure are very different from the way they are found in food. In nature, vitamins are never isolated; they are always present with co-factors and work synergistically in ways that we do not yet understand.
The field of nutrition is still a relatively new science and the workings of the human body are far from being understood. Nutritionists are certainly not aware of all the complexities that make up food. First carbohydrates, protein, and fats were identified as the three components of food necessary for health. Later, when deficiency diseases such as scurvy were recognized, vitamins were discovered. Then came phytochemicals, fiber, antioxidants, carotenoids, etc. Who knows what other discoveries in food will be next.
The point is, multivitamins are only as good as what has been identified so far and even so, there is no possible way to take all the benefits out of food and put them into a supplement. And then there are the questions of which nutrients are interacting with what, how much of each is ideal, and bioavailability. These are multifaceted questions that are going to take science years and years to demystify.
Unless you know you are deficient in a specific nutrient, there is no need to take vitamins. Of course there are always exceptions such as the vegan who probably should supplement with some vitamin B12. Humans have survived and lived healthy lives throughout history living on all sorts of diets and without taking any supplements. Ultimately, it is your personal decision whether or not you choose to take a multivitamin. However, remember that multivitamins are supplements. That means that they are meant to supplement your diet, not take the place of healthy foods. Eating nutritious food has a much bigger impact on your health than any supplement you take and there is no pill that can replace all the natural nutrients found in wholesome food.
Corinne Goff is a Registered Dietitian who is absolutely passionate about food, health, and nutrition. Corinne has a BA in Psychology from Salve Regina University and a BS in Nutrition from the University of Rhode Island. As a nutritionist, her objective is to help people reach their health goals by offering a personalized holistic approach to wellness that incorporates natural foods and lifestyle changes. She works together with her clients to develop daily improvements that they feel comfortable with and that are realistic. She believes that the focus on wholesome, nutrient-rich, real food, is the greatest possible way to become healthier, have more energy, decrease chances of chronic disease, and feel your best.