Is Taking a Multivitamin Worth the Risks?
By KAMAL PATEL
Multivitamins are the most popular dietary supplement sold today. People of all demographics and age groups use multivitamins, and they're often people's first supplement. Since there are so many different multivitamin formulas, this supplement makes up an entire subsection of the supplement industry.
Multivitamins are often discussed in the media and online, though their use is rarely recommended against. Many articles and experts recommend a multivitamin as a general health supplement. However, multivitamins are made up of many different compounds, and it's never a good idea to take a variety of supplements without a good and well-researched reason to do so.
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Not everyone needs to supplement with a multivitamin. People with a nutrient deficiency that cannot be alleviated through dietary changes may experience benefits from supplementing with a multivitamin, but that also depends on the kind of multivitamin formulation they buy.
The standard multivitamin
The most commonly used and researched multivitamin formula contains 100 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of nutrients the body needs. Some compounds, like magnesium and calcium, are physically too large to include in these capsules. Iron is also usually omitted.
Standard multivitamins are an effective and recommended supplement for people who do not get enough nutrients through their diet. Keep in mind, making dietary changes is both more effective and tastier than supplementing to alleviate a nutrition deficiency.
Though standard multivitamins are beneficial supplements for people living in low-income areas or food deserts without easy access to nutritional food, they are more often used as preventative supplements by people eating a varied diet. Though studies show there are no side effects from standard multivitamin supplements, they also don't provide any benefits when taken by already-healthy people.
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The experimental multivitamin
Some multivitamin formulas contain 100 percent of the RDI for essential vitamins, but also contain additional "antioxidant support" and other phytonutrients alongside questionable health claims.
These are the multivitamin formulas that tend to be associated with increased cancer risk in clinical studies, since most of the antioxidant claims are based on vitamin E content, which can be harmful at doses above 400 IU (18 times higher than the RDI).
Some additions are inert and have no effect, like increased vitamin C content, which has not been linked to any benefits. Other ingredients, such as lycopene, are included based on promising preliminary evidence, but likely have no effect when supplemented by people through a multivitamin.
These multivitamin formulas are marketed as an improvement over standard multivitamin formulas, but they are not recommended for supplementation. At worst, experimental multivitamins can be harmful to your health; at best, they're a standard multivitamin with a higher price.
The surplus multivitamin
Even experimental multivitamin formulas tend to toe the line when it comes to the RDI of various nutrients. The third category of multivitamins, however, contains formulas that disregard serving sizes and established dosages.
Surplus multivitamins are marketed as general health supplements, whether they contain vitamin C, garlic or another herb. These multivitamins are not vitamins, they are combinations of other supplements and compounds.
Multivitamins and supplements that contain a variety of compounds but hide the doses behind proprietary blends should be avoided. There is no research done on these specific combinations. Existing research on individual supplements does not apply because supplements can act differently when taken together. When doses and ingredients are not available, it isn't possible to determine the effects and health risks of the supplement.
Multivitamin supplements that list the amount of each ingredient can be supplemented safely, but should only be used if the included ingredients are effective supplements for your specific health goal.
Do I need a multivitamin?
Multivitamins, like all supplements, should never be used without a good reason. Before purchasing a new supplement, read the label and ask yourself:
1. What ingredients in this supplement are useful for my health goal?
2. What ingredients in this supplement are not useful for my health goal?
3. Will the ingredients hurt me or be counterproductive?
4. If I buy the ingredients individually, will it be more expensive than this supplement?
If the multivitamin isn't harmful and isn't more expensive than the sum of its parts, it may be worth considering for supplementation.
Readers -- Do you take a daily multivitamin? If so, what kind? Do you feel like it's having an effect on your health? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Kamal Patel is the director of Examine.com. He's a nutrition researcher with an M.P.H. and M.B.A. from Johns Hopkins University and is on hiatus from a Ph.D. in nutrition in which he researched the link between diet and chronic pain.
He has published peer-reviewed articles on vitamin D and calcium as well as a variety of clinical research topics. Kamal has also been involved in research on fructose and liver health, mindfulness meditation and nutrition in low-income areas.