An estimated 49% of adults in the United States take some sort of dietary supplement, with the most common type of supplement being a multivitamin. There’s tons of information out there about multivitamins, which can make it difficult to determine if they’re really effective or necessary for good health, and more importantly, if taking one is right for you. On top of that, there are loads of different multivitamin brands all boasting different ingredient formulations.
There are no magic answers, but in this article, we’ll walk you through what a multivitamin is, some of the populations who might benefit from taking one, and things to look out for when choosing a particular one. Armed with this information, you’ll be much better equipped to make a decision on multivitamins that works for you and your body.
What Is a Multivitamin?
A multivitamin is a dietary supplement that has a variety of vitamins and minerals, and sometimes other ingredients like herbs, amino acids, and fatty acids. “Multivitamin” usually refers to a nutritional supplement that contains lots of different vitamins and minerals, as opposed to a supplement that only contains one (i.e. an iron supplement). All of the ingredients are packed together into one form, such as a tablet, capsule, chewable gummy, powder, or liquid.
While the best way to get these nutrients is from real foods, the benefit of multivitamins is they can help fill in any gaps you have in your diet. Some of the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs include vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin C, folate, vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and more.
There is no single standard multivitamin. Instead, there are many different types of multivitamins out there, as each brand decides which and how many vitamins and minerals to include in their specific product. The amount of nutrients you need depends on several individual factors—which is why, searching the supplements aisle at the grocery store, you’ll likely find multivitamins formulated for many specific populations, such as men, women, children, older adults, pregnant women, and more.
“Multivitamins can be very beneficial when used appropriately, as they provide essential nutrients to help fill in nutrient gaps and address specific nutritional needs,” says Valerie Agyeman, R.D., dietitian and host of women’s health podcast, Flourish Heights.
Who Might Benefit From a Multivitamin or Supplement
Healthy adults who eat a balanced diet full of nutrient-dense food may have little need for multivitamins. However, specific populations are at greater risk of not getting all the vitamins and minerals they need from their food, or might be in a stage of life where it makes more sense to introduce supplements. Some of the people who might benefit from taking a multivitamin include:
- Older adults. The elderly are at risk for nutritional deficiencies for several reasons. They’re more likely to experience difficulty chewing and swallowing food, taste changes that make eating more unpleasant, and loneliness and depression which can suppress their appetite. Additionally, they struggle to absorb vitamin B12 from food. A daily multivitamin can help older adults get some of these vitamins and minerals they might be missing from their diet, and particularly help with bone health.
- Vegans and vegetarians. People who follow a strict vegan or vegetarian diet are at greater risk of being deficient in vitamin B12, since it’s primarily found in animal foods. They also may find it more difficult to get enough of other vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, zinc, iron, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Consulting with your doctor, and possibly running blood tests, can help you figure out if you are deficient in any specific nutrients, and should consider taking a multivitamin or a specific supplement.
- Women of childbearing age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that women of reproductive age (around the ages 15 to 45) take 400 micrograms per day of folic acid. This can help prevent major neural tube birth defects if you do become pregnant, including defects of the baby’s brain (anencephaly) and spine (spina bifida). It’s recommended to take this daily supplement of folic acid during your reproductive years because birth defects of the baby’s brain or spine occur very early in pregnancy, about 3-4 weeks after conception. This is before most women know they are pregnant, and therefore waiting until this point to start taking folic acid may not be effective.
- Pregnant women. Women who are pregnant often elect to take a prenatal vitamin. This is to make sure their body and their growing baby are both getting all the vitamins and minerals they need. In addition to folate, mentioned above, important nutrients for a healthy pregnancy include iron, calcium, vitamin D, and DHA.
- People with a poor diet or low appetite. Whether it’s because of a particular food sensitivity or taking a medication that’s suppressing your appetite, people who aren’t getting enough nutrients from their diet could benefit from taking a multivitamin. Especially if you’re feeling fatigued much of the time, consult your doctor to discuss if a multivitamin could help you get some of the vitamins and minerals you’re lacking.
- People with a chronic disease. Any chronic condition that interferes with your body’s normal digestive functions can increase the risk of poor absorption of one or several nutrients. Some examples include conditions like celiac, ulcerative colitis, cystic fibrosis, or any illnesses with excess vomiting or diarrhea as a symptom. Additionally, surgeries that remove parts of your digestive organs, such as a gastric bypass for weight loss or a Whipple procedure that involves many digestive organs, can make nutrient deficiencies more likely.
How Often To Take a Multivitamin
Most multivitamins are formulated to be taken once or twice per day. When starting to take a new multivitamin, you should read the packaging carefully and follow its instructions regarding how often to take it. Set a reminder on your phone that you check off each time you take it, or consider a weekly pills organizer. This can help you avoid forgetting whether you’ve already taken the pill on any given day, leading to an accidental double dosage.
Choosing the Right Multivitamin
Before choosing a multivitamin, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your reasons for wanting to take one. They can help determine if there’s a bigger issue to address, run blood tests if necessary, and possibly determine if you are deficient in any specific vitamins or minerals. They can also help you determine if any medications you’re currently taking could interfere with a multivitamin.
Once you’ve done so, look for a multivitamin targeted towards your specific population (men, women, pregnant women, etc.) Don’t worry about expensive brand names, as generic brands that have the USP seal of approval (more on that below) will still deliver results. And be wary of multivitamins that advertise promises such as increased brain health or healthier skin and hair, as these are generally statements not backed by research specific to the supplement.
“Check for high-quality ingredients without unnecessary additives, fillers, or artificial colors or flavors,” says Agyeman. “If you have known allergies or sensitivities, choose a multivitamin that is free from common allergens, such as gluten, dairy, or soy.”
Precautions To Taking a Multivitamin
While taking a multivitamin is generally low risk, there are still several things you should look out for when starting to take a new one.
- Daily Value (DV). Before introducing a multivitamin into your routine, take a look at the label and the DV that’s listed for each ingredient. This figure shows you, as a percentage, how much of the Recommended Daily Value of a vitamin or mineral the multivitamin contains. It should have close to 100% for each ingredient, although it’s not possible to place high amounts of some nutrients into one tablet, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Importantly, none of the ingredients should go over 100% of the DV. This can be harmful, as high doses of the substances can build up in your body over time and possibly become toxic.
- USP seal. The USP seal of approval, or Verified Mark, is issued by the United States Pharmacopeia. You should check to see if the multivitamin you intend to take has it. If it does, it provides assurance that the supplement:
- Contains the ingredients listed on the label, in the amounts indicated.
- Does not contain harmful levels of certain heavy metals (such as lead and mercury) microbes, pesticides, or other specified contaminants.
- Will break down and release into the body within a specified amount of time. This is important so that you can get the full benefits of the multivitamin, which you won’t get if it doesn’t break down properly and allow its ingredients to be absorbed into the body.
- Was made according to FDA’s current Good Manufacturing Practices, which requires sanitary and well-controlled procedures.
- Check with your doctor to see if you’re part of a group at particular risk for side effects. It’s a good idea to always talk to your doctor before you start taking a new medication or supplement, including a multivitamin. They can help you determine if you are part of a group that may be at particular risk for side effects from certain types of vitamins and minerals. For example, people taking blood thinners need to be careful not to overdo their vitamin K intake as this can lead to blood clots. Additionally, studies show that smokers are at greater risk of lung cancer when taking oral vitamin A supplements.
- Don’t forget to prioritize eating nutrient-rich foods. Just because you’ve started taking a multivitamin doesn’t mean you should slack on eating well. “While supplements can be helpful in addressing specific nutrient needs, they should not be relied upon as a substitute for a healthy diet. Whole foods provide a wide array of nutrients and other beneficial compounds that cannot be replicated by supplements alone,” says Agyeman. In order to meet all your nutritional needs, aim to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein, whether you’re taking a multivitamin supplement or not.
So, Should You Take a Multivitamin?
Ultimately, when it comes to getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs to optimally function, prioritizing whole, nutrient-rich foods will always pay dividends. That said, a multivitamin can be an option to supplement your diet and is generally low-risk when chosen carefully and taken as directed. Remember to talk to your doctor before trying a new multivitamin, and to keep them updated if you experience any new symptoms.
Disclaimer: All content within this site is not intended as medical diagnosis or treatment and should not be considered a substitute for, nor does it replace, professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You are solely responsible for ensuring that any health or nutritional information obtained is accurate.