Should You Take a Multi-Vitamin?

Almost half of all Americans take some kind of supplement, most commonly a multi-vitamin. Taking a multi-vitamin sounds like an easy way to ensure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need to stay healthy – but is it really a good idea from a health standpoint?

Can a Multi-Vitamin Be Harmful to Your Health?

Whether or not taking a multi-vitamin is beneficial is controversial. There’s some evidence that popping a multi-vitamin every day may do more harm than good. A large study called the Women’s Health Study followed older women for 20 years. They found those who took a multi-vitamin had a higher risk of dying prematurely. This isn’t necessarily the final word on the subject, but it does raise questions about the benefits of taking a daily vitamin.

Vitamins and minerals you get from a bottle don’t necessarily have the same benefits as the ones you get naturally through eating a healthy diet. When you get vitamins and minerals from healthy food sources like fruits and vegetables, you also get antioxidants and other disease-preventative compounds that are naturally present in colorful fruits and veggies. All of these components work together as a group to keep you healthy. It’s not clear whether vitamins and minerals in multi-vitamins have the same benefits. Plus, vitamins and supplements aren’t strictly regulated so you don’t know that you’re really getting what it says you are on the bottle.  When Consumer Reports did a study, they found that almost half of low-priced multi-vitamins didn’t contain what it claimed on the bottle. Not very reassuring, is it?

A Healthy Diet is Your Best Assurance against Deficiencies

The best way to get your vitamins and minerals is to eat a well-balanced diet and fewer “empty calories.” Empty calories add to your waistline without helping to meet your nutritional needs. There are some situations where you may need a multi-vitamin. Here are some:

You’re restricting calories because you’re trying to lose weight. When you drop your calorie intake below 1200 calories a day, your risk for nutritional deficiencies rises. It’s never a good idea to go on a very low-calorie diet without supervision, but if you cut back how much you’re eating significantly, taking a multi-vitamin is a good idea until you’re eating a suitable number of calories again.

You eat mostly empty calories. If your favorite place to dine is a fast food restaurant, you may need a multi-vitamin to make up for what you’re not getting through diet. Of course, a better option is to steer clear or fast food and eat a whole food diet.

You eat a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian diets are usually lower in some vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B12, zinc, calcium and vitamin D. Vegans who don’t eat meat or dairy products are particularly susceptible to vitamin B12 deficiency. B12 deficiency has serious health consequences. It cause anemia and nerve damage that can be permanent. If you eat a vegetarian diet, talk to your doctor about taking a multi-vitamin.

You’re pregnant. If you’re pregnant, you need folate to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in your unborn baby and supplemental iron. Doctors usually prescribe a multi-vitamin plus iron for women who are pregnant.

The Bottom Line?

If you eat a healthy diet, a multi-vitamin may offer no additional benefits and could actually be harmful, but if you’re dieting, eat a vegetarian diet, eat a fast food diet or are pregnant, you may need a multi-vitamin for the additional nutritional protection it offers.

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Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.