JESSIE THE DIETITIAN: SHOULD I TAKE A MULTIVITAMIN?

Nov 14 / CATEGORY: Nutrition

Multivitamin and mineral supplements (“MVI”) can be purchased inexpensively at mass market retailers, or for a small mint with specialty companies. They are abundant in whole foods, and some processed foods provide a substantial dose. Taking a daily MVI has become a common occurrence for many – but do we actually know what they are and what they do? The big question is: Do we need to take one?

Who takes them?

More than half of Americans take a vitamin supplement: The highest users are those educated beyond high school, upper-income, and adults over the age of 65. Only since the early 1940s have vitamin and mineral supplements become available for purchase, and we have responded gallantly with sales totaling nearly $12 billion annually. The majority of individuals who take nutrition supplements tend to have healthy habits in general, eating a varied diet and choose healthful behaviors.

 

Why take them?

For many people, the main reason to take a MVI or other supplement is to prevent nutritional deficiencies. With the exception of iron, vitamin or mineral deficiencies in the U.S. are very uncommon. If you consume a moderate to highly varied diet and at least occasionally consume fruits, vegetables, lean meats, breads and/or cereals, the science suggests an MVI will not improve your health nor are they necessary.

Nutrients are best absorbed from foods, and distilling a whole food down to its individual parts neglects its perfect combination of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other natural compounds that are packaged for best absorption. This overall package cannot be obtained from a multivitamin supplement no matter how many compounds are added.

On the other hand, those with specific health conditions, highly restrictive diets, particular life events, or extremely poor diets may benefit from supplementation, e.g., cystic fibrosis, pre-pregnancy, consume candy and chips all day, respectively. For the rest of us? Multivitamins generally are unused and excreted, essentially making expensive pee and poo!

Are they safe? Regulated?

Although half of Americans pop these seemingly innocuous pills daily, might we be inducing harm?  Most people can take supplements safely without experiencing harmful effects to health. The scientific evidence for a single multivitamin is mixed with a 2006 review indicating that the evidence was, “insufficient to prove the presence or absence of benefits from use of multivitamin and mineral supplements.” However, there are well documented studies of specific high-dose vitamins and minerals leading to increased rates of lung cancer, kidney stones, and heart disease.

Dietary supplements are regulated under DSHEA governmental law; they are not required to undergo research studies to ensure safety before coming to market. Once available for sale, the FDA lightly reviews the market for illegal activity: unsafe ingredients or companies making false or misleading claims.

Overall

Despite many medical studies documenting that vitamin supplements do not provide health benefits when taken in the absence of specific disease or condition, we continue to take them. Turn a skeptical eye to any miraculous or grandiose claims, too-good-to-be-true testimonials, or vague allusions to “scientific proof” when evaluating supplements. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.

The decision to take a MVI is a personal choice. Know the facts! If you have questions, talk with a knowledgeable doctor or dietitian.

-Jessie Furman, MS, RDN, LD/N

Jessie is a Registered Dietitian at University of Florida’s Department of Recreational Sports where she does individual nutrition counseling and coaching with the UF community.