A commonly held belief when it comes to multivitamins is that they can’t hurt; but how true is this? When it comes to deciding whether a multivitamin is beneficial, there is much to consider, such as nutritional status, exposure to toxins, age, gender, genetics, and overall health. When it comes to multivitamins, there is a huge range of options and quality. Before simply assuming that a multivitamin will be helpful, consumers should understand what to look for in a supplement, and what to stay away from.
There are 13 vitamins and more than 16 minerals essential to human health. Multivitamin supplements should offer most of these essential nutrients in no more than 100% of their RDA (recommended daily allowance), and many will also contain certain herbs, and amino and fatty acids.
In an ideal world, all vitamins and minerals could be obtained by a daily diet rich in nutrient-dense foods; however, this often isn’t possible. Therefore, many people can benefit from a high quality multivitamin.
Who Can Benefit From a Multivitamin?
Those with a poor diet history: For those with a diet history of mainly processed/packaged foods and a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, boosting the body’s overall nutrient levels with a multivitamin can certainly help. Over time, an ongoing deficiency can lead to serious health issues, such as anemia (iron), osteoporosis (vitamin D3 and K2), and neural tube defects (folate).
Pregnant women: Pregnant and nursing women have increased nutritional needs, as their baby takes first priority in receiving nutrients from the body. A good pre- and post-natal multivitamin should include iron, folate (superior to folic acid), and iron.
Vegans/vegetarians: While vegetarians can also be deficient, vegans should definitely be supplementing with vitamins B12, vitamin D, iron, and calcium. Some experts also recommend iodine, as most get this important nutrient from dairy.
History of toxic exposure: Those who have a history of high exposure to toxins (environmental toxins such as lead paint), toxins found in processed foods like rancid oils, non-organic personal hygiene products, and household cleaners can benefit from a multivitamin high in minerals, antioxidants, and B vitamins. A basic detox program will also be highly beneficial.
Vulnerable age groups: Multivitamins targeted at specific populations such as children and seniors contain certain key nutrients. For example, seniors often have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from foods due to low stomach acid levels, and vitamin D deficiency is more common in children.
Genetics: Some people are actually born with genetic conditions that inhibit uptake and usage of certain nutrients. For example, a vitamin D deficiency is far more common in those with dark skin, as skin pigment acts as a natural sunscreen.
How to Choose the Right Multivitamin
Look for quality seals: Supplements should be certified by either Consumer Lab, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), or NSF International. These three trusted organizations evaluate products and set standards for drug manufacturers, taking into account the methods of production, quality control, and potency testing. Also, be wary of claims that sound too good to be true… They probably are!
Synthetic vs. whole foods-based: Multivitamins are either synthetically (chemically) derived or made from real, whole food sources. Studies have shown that the human body tends to absorb and assimilate whole food-based multivitamins more effectively; so opt for these over synthetic brands. For example, a 2013 study showed that for the treatment of scurvy, synthetic vitamin C was not effective and whole food sources of vitamin C were.
Work with a professional when treating a specific deficiency: If you suspect or confirm that you are deficient in a particular nutrient (after testing), work with a healthcare professional to determine dosage. Be careful in doing this alone, as things can get tricky. For example, a 2009 study found that over-supplementation with beta-carotene can actually increase risk of lung cancer.
Remember, a multivitamin should never be a replacement for a nutrient-dense diet. While multis can certainly provide support, the body best absorbs and assimilates nutrients through whole foods.