Essential or excessive? A look at whether you really need multivitamins


by Rebecca Almgren, Julia York and Rachael Hirst

Nov 3, 2023

In every grocery store, there’s an aisle lined with supplement bottles promising a wide range of health benefits: more energy, sounder sleep, better skin, longer hair, stronger bones, more energy.

But do they deliver?

Multivitamins, often marketed as one-a-day vitamins, can include nutrients such as iron, vitamin C, vitamin D, folate and many others that support healthy body functions. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most American adults and more than a third of children use dietary supplements like multivitamins regularly.

But the supplement industry is a little controversial, so we’re here to address some of the most common questions about multivitamins and whether they are worth the price.

Do I need a multivitamin?

Multivitamins are packed full of essential vitamins and minerals that our body needs to survive and thrive. However, next time you are strolling through the supplement aisle, think twice about purchasing a multivitamin. Most Americans consume the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals from their daily diets, according to the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.In fact, the guidelines recommend that you consume vitamins and minerals through food alone.

Can I benefit from a multivitamin?

Studies have concluded that taking different supplements, including multivitamins, does not reduce your risk of diseases such as cancer or cardiovascular disease. However, there are some instances in which taking a multivitamin may be necessary. For example, there is significant research showing that pregnant women or women trying to get pregnant should supplement their diets with folic acid. Folic acid has been proven to reduce birth defects in infants.

Multivitamins also may be important in people with special medical conditions. People who are at increased risk of nutrient deficiencies, including individuals with conditions such as celiac disease or those who have had gastric bypass surgery, may be prescribed a multivitamin by their healthcare provider as the body cannot digest and absorb nutrients the same way as a healthy individual. These groups may need supplementation with a multivitamin to meet the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals.

Infants and older adults may also benefit from a multivitamin. Although most nutrients come from the diet, your healthcare provider may suggest that some in these groups take supplements to make they are absorbing enough of certain important nutrients like B12 and vitamin D.

Is there any downside to taking a daily multivitamin?

In some cases, taking a multivitamin can actually be harmful by causing vitamin toxicity. The National Institutes of Health compiles scientific research articles to set the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), which reports the daily maximum amount of a vitamin/mineral that an individual can consume without negative side effects. Depending on your diet, you may already be meeting these needs, and taking a multivitamin without a diagnosed nutrient deficiency could surpass the UL and lead to toxicity.

Certain supplements may cause liver damage, resulting in elevated liver enzymes, like AST and ALT. Another example of this is biotin, which can affect thyroid hormones and troponin (a heart attack marker) and give an inaccurate reading.

What should I look for when shopping for a multivitamin?

When it comes to shopping for multivitamins, it’s important to know what to look for, especially since the FDA doesn’t regulate these products. To determine whether multivitamins are necessary for you, it’s essential to consider several factors when choosing the right one.

First, check the ingredients list to ensure it contains essential vitamins and minerals your body needs, such as vitamins A, C, D, E, various B vitamins and important minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc. It’s also important to pay attention to the dosage of each nutrient, as it should provide an appropriate amount to meet your daily requirements and avoid excessive or inadequate levels. The form of the vitamin also matters, as some are more easily absorbed by your body such as vitamin D3 over vitamin D2.

When picking a multivitamin, research and choose reputable brands known for their transparency and adherence to standards, like products with USP or NSF certifications to ensure quality and safety. Check for potential allergens or additives that may not align with your dietary restrictions. For example, many supplements contain gluten, which isn’t suitable for those with celiac disease. Athletes should be especially careful when choosing supplements, as they often have ingredients that aren’t listed on the label that could lead to a failed doping test.

Consult a healthcare professional before starting a new supplement. They can give you personalized guidance to help you choose a multivitamin based on your unique health status and requirements.

By considering these factors, you can make an informed decision about whether multivitamins are necessary for you and choose the right product to support your health and well-being. The bottom line is, if you’re eating a balanced diet of nutrient dense foods, you may not need to invest in a general multivitamin. (Check out this site to see examples of vitamin/mineral food sources that you can incorporate into your diet.)

If you do decide to buy some, look out for certified brands. Remember: When in doubt, it’s always best to speak with a registered dietitian or your doctor before taking a multivitamin.

Wondering whether you need multivitamins or other supplements? Talk to a registered dietitian near you about this and other nutritional needs.

About the Author

Rebecca, Julia and Rachael are dietetic interns in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness program.

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