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Do I Really Need to Take Multivitamins?

Some time in the past twenty years, it's very likely that someone--your doctor, a nutritionist, a dietitian, a trainer, health or wellness writer -- has told you that you should take a multivitamin. But, do you really need one?

Photography by: Raymond Hom

With regards to their prevalence in society, more than one-third of all Americans take these supplements. In fact, they account for almost one-sixth of all purchases of dietary supplements and 40% of all sales of vitamin and mineral supplements. In 2014, sales of all dietary supplements in the United States totaled an estimated $36.7 billion.


A multivitamin/mineral supplement is defined in the United States as a supplement containing 3 or more vitamins and minerals that does not include herbs, hormones or drugs, where each vitamin and mineral is included at a dose below the tolerable upper level (as determined by the Food and Drug Board), and does not present a risk of adverse health effects.


Scientific literature suggests that there is no evidence that taking a multivitamin can make your healthier or prevent disease. One study, performed by researchers at the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, followed 160,000 postmenopausal women for ten years and found that, independent of total vegetable and fruit intake, women who took a multivitamin did not show a reduced risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and other causes of death.


But, for some reason, there is also this perception that people who have incorporated a multivitamin into their daily practice are generally healthier. But why? And, really, what are defining as "healthy"?


This word is so vast. And, since there is no standard or regulatory definition as to what is available in a multivitamin supplement -- such as what nutrients it must contain and at what levels, it is difficult to know what is really making you "healthier." Is it the change in lifestyle and your food choices once you get on a multivitamin regime or is it a psychosomatic effect that you experience simply because you feel like you are doing something good for yourself? Each person's definition of "healthy" is unique.


In fact, across genders, races, and age demographics, it is hard to compare what actually makes an impact on different "health" outcomes. Some literature suggests that studies on multivitamins need to include nutrient intakes from foods in order to correctly determine total nutrient exposure.


While you can find a multivitamin supplement that can address any of your health concerns or ailments (PMS, anti-inflammatory, mood, heart health, energy, memory, vision, et), my personal belief is that a diet that consists mostly of whole foods, nuts, grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables should suffice in helping to keep your body running optimally.


But what about all those foods and products being fortified with vitamins and marketed as containing "all natural ingredients" "anti-oxidants, and vitamins being infused into our face and body creams? Here's the deal, there is no cream that will "anti-age" you if you are eating an unhealthy diet, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, and not giving your body an opportunity to get your blood flowing with regular physical activity.


So, the same with a multivitamin. In fact, if you do not have a healthy diet full of good fats, you may be wasting your money on a multivitamin. I say this because the fat soluble vitamins (Vitamin A, E, D and K) need fat to get absorbed. While Vitamins B and C are water soluble. This is why your urine will take on a darker more concentrated golden yellow color after you take a multivitamin.


If you generally eat a healthy, well-rounded, and balanced diet, you can probably skip out on a multivitamin. Of course, this comes with a few caveats, as every body is different and nutrition advice should be tailored to the individual. Our bodies go through different life cycles and phases. There are different needs for women who are pregnant and, as we enter and come out of menopause, the changes our bodies experience in the hormonal shift can cause a demand for more of a certain vitamin or mineral.


I recently had bloodwork done and found out that I was Vitamin D deficient. The recommendation was for me to start taking a Vitamin D3 supplement -5000 IU/day as well as to get outdoors and get some good old-fashioned sunshine. I blame my SPF for my deficiency!


So, some factors -- like age, pregnancy, diet, activity level, where you live, and family history -- that might affect whether you might need to take a supplement?


● Under age 50: you may benefit from vitamin D, calcium (if you don't regularly eat three servings of dairy per day), and an omega-3 supplement (if you don't regularly eat 2-3 servings of oily fish every week.


● Over age 50: older individuals require more of certain nutrients due to reduced absorption. Older adults also benefit from calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3s as well as a vitamin B12 supplement if your doctor recommends it.


● Pregnant women: a prenatal vitamin is recommended for all pregnant women. Aim for one with at least 27 mg of iron and 400 mcg of folic acid. Omega-3s, calcium, and vitamin D may also be recommended. Breastfeeding women may also be candidates for a multivitamin, but talk to your doctor first.


● Vegetarian or vegan: it can be a struggle to get the recommended amounts of iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12 from a vegetarian or vegan diet. For vegans, plant-based omega-3 supplements are available


● Athletes: exercise increases the turnover of some vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and vitamin B6. In addition, iron status is particularly important for athletes. While the increased dietary intake of athletes may provide enough of these nutrients, supplementation with a multivitamin may be necessary to promote optimal performance.