Why Take a Multivitamin?


There are lots of good reasons to take a multivitamin. Even the best eating plans can fall short of meeting all of the 40-plus nutrients you need each day. Most Americans fail to meet dietary recommendations for many reasons, including strict dieting, poor appetite, changing nutritional needs, or less-than-healthy food choices. Taking a once-daily multivitamin is an easy way to fill in small nutritional gaps.

But strolling down the vitamin aisle to choose the best multivitamin can be confusing. With so many different brands and varieties to choose from, it’s hard to know where to begin.

In a nutshell, it’s wise to make sure your diet is complete with all the nutrients needed for health and wellness.

Healthy eating remains the best source of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. A multivitamin is not a substitute for healthy food or a healthy lifestyle, but it can provide a nutritional back-up for a less-than-ideal diet. "If your diet eliminates whole food groups or you don’t eat enough variety of foods -- you would benefit from a once-daily multivitamin," says Karen Ansel, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans identified calcium, vitamin D, dietary fiber, and potassium as nutrients of concern for inadequate intake in adults and children. All of these nutrients, except fiber, come packaged in a multivitamin. Fiber can be obtained as a separate supplement, but it's still best to try to get all your fiber from the foods you eat.

Although some evidence questions the benefit of a daily multivitamin and its ability to stave off disease, many people add them to their diet to maintain or boost health.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, more than half of U.S. adults take dietary supplements. Multivitamins are the most commonly used supplement, with 40% of men and women reporting they take a daily multivitamin.

The Harvard School of Public Health suggests a once daily multivitamin with extra vitamin D for most people as a nutritional back-up. The Linus Pauling Institute’s Micronutrient Information Center at Oregon State University suggests taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement with 100% of the Daily Value (DV) for most vitamins and essential minerals to maintain health.

What to Look for in a Multivitamin  


Experts may not agree about the effects of daily multivitamins. But, in bridging nutrient gaps, it’s reasonable to assume that multivitamins not only support general health, but may help head off chronic conditions or other health risks. For example, a woman could take a supplement containing folic acid to help avoid some birth defects, or a supplement with calcium and vitamin D to lower her risk of osteoporosis.

The risk of dietary deficiencies is greater than the risk of overdosing on a multivitamin. "Most American diets are missing nutrients and taking a once daily multivitamin will not cause harm, and has the potential to improve a nutrient-poor diet," Ansel says.

Selecting Multivitamins for Your Age and Sex

  • Get the basic vitamins and minerals. Most multivitamin preparations usually include the following vitamins and minerals: vitamin C, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 ( niacin), B6, folic acid (B9), B12, B5 (pantothenic acid), biotin, A, E, D2 or D3 ( cholecalciferol), K, potassium, iodine, selenium, borate, zinc, calciummagnesium, manganese, molybdenum, betacarotene, and iron.·        
  • Read the label carefully. Product labels identify which nutrients are included and the amounts contained within each serving.
  • Check the percentages. In general, choose a supplement that provides 100% of the Daily Value (DV) for most of the vitamins and minerals in that supplement. Some nutrients, like calcium and magnesium, are rarely included at 100% because the pill would be too large to swallow.
  • Look for the extras. Modern multivitamins are available in a wide variety of formulas that are aimed at helping people with specific nutritional needs or conditions. Some of the more popular ones come with or without iron, or as high-potency formulas that contain at least two-thirds of the nutrients called for by recommended dietary allowances. Other multivitamins can contain additional select nutrients like antioxidants, or formulations that are specialized to specific conditions, like prenatal vitamins.
  • Formulas for men, women, and age groups. Choose a multivitamin designed for your age and sex so that the nutrients included will be right for you.
  • Don't overdo it. Avoid multivitamins that exceed 100% of daily recommended values, because supplements are in addition to the nutrients in food, and some, in large doses, can build up and become toxic.
  • Most multivitamins are formulated for the nutritional needs of different audiences. "At different stages of your life, your nutritional needs change, and a well-chosen multivitamin can ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need as you age," Ansel says. In addition to multivitamins aimed at groups like seniors, some multivitamins are aimed at women of childbearing age who may need extra iron in their diet, or prenatal vitamins for women who are contemplating pregnancy or who are already pregnant.
  • Because most multivitamins don’t include enough vitamin D or calcium, Ansel suggests taking these nutrients as additional supplements unless your diet is rich with milk, fish, and/or calcium-fortified foods and beverages.
  • For women only. These multivitamin supplements are designed for women in the child-bearing years. These include nutrients in the amounts close to requirements for women from 18 to 50, including more iron and folic acid to help prevent birth defects in women capable of becoming pregnant.
  • Just for men. Tailored to the nutrient requirements of adult men to age 50, these multivitamins contain higher doses of several vitamins and minerals, and don’t often include iron because men need less.
  • For seniors. Mature multivitamins are customized for men and women over the age of 50. "These formulas take into account that after age 50, absorption slows down for a few nutrients like calcium, vitamins B6 and B12, and you need more vitamin D," says Ansel. Your body no longer produces enough of the acid needed to break down the naturally occurring vitamin B12 from food. Synthetic vitamin B12, found in dietary supplements and in fortified foods, is easier to absorb and does not require the acid from your body.
  • Choose a senior multivitamin formulated specifically for your sex. There are several nutrient recommendations that are different for men and women over the age of 50. When women stop menstruating, their iron needs drop to the same levels as a man’s. Women who eat a balanced diet most of the time can take a senior multivitamin with very little or no iron.
Tips for Storing Vitamins


Supplements don’t last forever and can lose potency over time, especially when not kept in proper storage. Check expiration dates, store in a dry, cool place and avoid hot, humid storage locations like bathrooms.

Keep supplements in a secure location out of children’s reach.

Which Multivitamin Form Should You Choose?


Most multivitamins come in capsules, but are also available as tablets, powders, chewables and gummies, and liquids and injectable formulations that can be administered by health care providers.

In addition to varying amounts of vitamins and minerals, the difference between them is the rate your body absorbs the supplement. Liquids tend to be absorbed quicker, while coated pills are slower because the coating prevents absorption in the stomach.

If you have trouble swallowing pills, you may find a gel-coated capsule or liquid easier to swallow.

Some people prefer to take multivitamins with breakfast or before bed. It really doesn’t matter what time of day you take your vitamin, but taking them with food can help lessen any stomach discomfort.


Multivitamin Safety

The government sets tolerable upper limits on most vitamins and minerals, which take into account the nutrients also provided by the food and beverages you eat. Composition of multivitamins varies by brand, but each must contain three or more vitamins and minerals at a dose below the tolerable upper limit, and not include herbs, hormones, or drugs.

Vitamin supplements are regulated by the FDA as “dietary supplements” -- which are products taken by mouth intended to supplement the diet.

A measure of safety is to look for the designation "USP" on the label. A multivitamin that meets the requirements of the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) meets the standards and ensures the product is pure and actually contains the listed ingredients.

Finally, it is always a good idea to consult your health care provider when taking any supplement, especially if you take prescription or over-the-counter medication, or have a history of a chronic condition, such as cancer.

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