Do you take a multivitamin? Chances are, you probably do! In fact, if you’re like me, you began taking a multivitamin almost as soon as you could chew solids. I have fond memories of chomping my Flintstones vitamin with my waffles and milk every morning throughout my childhood years. Sound familiar? According a recent study, over half of Americans take some form of a multi-vitamin/mineral on a regular basis. For some of us, we continue to take multivitamins out of habit. Others are new to this emerging health trend. Whatever the reason may be, one thing is for certain: the multivitamin/mineral is a major contender in the supplement industry. As a nation, we spend $12.4 billion on these little capsules each year. But does taking a multivitamin make us healthier? Here are some facts for you to consider. Spoiler alert: those little pills may not be as healthy as you think!
Overview of multivitamins
Americans have been taking multivitamins since the 1940s. Today’s “multivitamins” are actually a blend of both vitamins and minerals. That’s why researchers and scientists often refer to these supplements as MVMs – which stands for multivitamin/mineral. The distinction is not especially important except that it is worth noting most multivitamins contain a mixture of both vitamins and minerals. Vitamins, like C and D, are organic compounds produced by plants and animals. Minerals, like calcium and iron, are found in the soil and water and are later absorbed by plants.
Water- vs. fat-soluble vitamins
All vitamins can be separated into two distinct categories: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Water-soluble vitamins, like vitamin C and B vitamins, are easily absorbed and excreted by the body. Because they are water-soluble, your body takes what it needs of the vitamin and gets rid of the rest by excretion through the urine. (This is what people are talking about when they say that taking a multivitamin is just “paying to have expensive pee”). The risk of toxicity for these vitamins is therefore very low.
Vitamins A, D, E, K are all fat-soluble vitamins. Fat-soluble vitamins are broken down by bile acids in your body. Unlike their water-soluble relatives, fat-soluble nutrients are not easily excreted from your body. The body uses what it needs at that time and stores the rest in fat for future use. Because fat-soluble nutrients can accumulate in your tissue, large doses of these vitamins can be toxic and lead to health problems.
To avoid toxicities, i.e. poisoning yourself, it is recommended you supplement only with vitamins/minerals you are deficient in and avoid consuming above the dietary reference intake (DRI) for a nutrient. Companies like InsideTracker can help you do this.
Does taking a multivitamin/mineral make you healthier?
What you are probably still wondering is, are multivitamins good for you? The answer is not so simple. Most experts say that taking a multivitamin is not necessary for people who eat a healthy and complete diet. That is a pretty big caveat! How many of us base our daily diets on the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans? Are you confident that you are getting most of your essential nutrients every day?
If not, logic would suggest that a daily MVM is good way to ensure your body has a constant source of the essential nutrients it needs to survive. But the science seems to show that taking a multivitamin doesn’t actually do much for our overall health. A 2013 meta-analysis concluded that MVM supplementation has no effect on all-cause mortality. In other words, people who take a multivitamin have the same risk of dying as those who do not. A systematic review from the same year takes this a step further, suggesting that vitamin and mineral supplementation does little to prevent two of the major diseases in this country: cancer and heart disease. Other studies have had similar findings.
What are the risks?
There’s relatively little risk associated with taking a MVM. If you are taking your MVM with other supplements or fortified foods on a daily basis, you do run the risk of consuming too much of a nutrient. Toxicity and other side effects are concerns with fat-soluble vitamins, like A and D, and certain minerals, like iron. Other risks are specific to certain sub-populations. For example: individuals who smoke or used to smoke may want to avoid taking a MVM containing vitamin K, as vitamin K has been shown to increase a smoker’s risk for developing lung cancer.
What are the benefits?
For most Americans, there doesn’t seem to be any real benefit to taking a multivitamin. Some healthy people still take a MVM for the alleged “insurance” value. Your doctor may also recommend you take a MVM if you are on a restricted diet or are clinically deficient in multiple nutrients. In general, supplements are often recommended for specific populations that either (a) have specific needs for a given nutrient or (b) are more likely to be clinically deficient in a nutrient. For example, older adults, people with dark skin, and people who get insufficient exposure to sunlight are often recommended to consume extra vitamin D from vitamin D-fortified foods and/or supplements.
Eat food first, then supplement!
Most experts agree that it is better to get these nutrients from whole foods, where vitamins and minerals are in their most biologically available form – primed for absorption and use! Eat a healthy diet that contains a variety of fruits and vegetables. Chances are, you’ll meet your recommended daily intake for most vitamins and minerals. Don’t forget, much of our food supply contains fortified products! Our salt contains iodine; our milk contains Vitamin D; our flour is enriched and fortified with iron, folic acid, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, and zinc. That means you are probably consuming the nutrients you need just from eating food!
If you’re concerned about getting too much or too little of a specific nutrient, you can still find out if you need to take a supplement. The easiest way to do this is to get a blood test. InsideTracker can help you; in addition to measuring your blood levels of key biomarkers, InsideTracker will give you recommendations for simple changes to your nutrition, exercise, lifestyle, and supplements to help you reach your optimal levels.
Click here to learn more about testing your nutrition status with InsideTracker today.