Let's be honest: Choosing the right vitamins and supplements is downright baffling. Who hasn't stood in the vitamin aisle of the pharmacy or health food store staring at the endless options only to flee empty-handed because you just don't know which one to pick?
But a crop of companies now promise to cut through all the static and recommend the right vitamin and supplement combination for you, all based on science and sent directly to your home. But are personalized vitamins legit and worth the money?
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Before you go the made-for-you route, here's what you need to know.
What Are Personalized Vitamins?
Companies like Ritual, Care/of and Persona are making a splash in the wellness world by selling personalized vitamin packs shipped to your doorstep. With vitamins that look like mini snow globes — filled with tiny spheres suspended in liquid — and others dressed in Instagram-chic pastel colors, these companies have made vitamins the new, cool wellness accessory.
Their pitch is simple: Take a quick online assessment and answer basic questions about your age, sex, location, lifestyle choices like diet and exercise and any current concerns (low energy? digestive issues? lackluster skin?). Then, voila! The company will cut through all the confusing information and recommend the right vitamin combo for you.
It's no surprise that personalized vitamins have taken off. According to market research from L.E.K. Consulting, Americans interested in health and wellness already spend an average of over $400 each year on vitamins and supplements, and the industry is only projected to keep growing.
Plus, the idea of personalized care is something people have latched onto, says Cara Harbstreet, RD, LD, dietitian and founder of Street Smart Nutrition. "Health care has always been this rushed process where you don't get personalized attention," she says. "With personalized vitamins, people have a say in the process and are involved in identifying goals. They can feel empowered to take control over their health."
This empowerment could act as a catalyst to engage in other healthy habits, like meal planning or exercise, she adds.
Pros and Cons of Personalized Supplements
Personalization makes sense to a degree. Nutrient needs can fluctuate depending on age, phase of life and lifestyle. Plus, some people may have a genetic variation or conditions that affect how they metabolize certain nutrients, which may warrant a more individualized approach — but that's not super common, Harbstreet says.
For the majority of people, personalized supplements mostly have a range of drawbacks:
1. There's Not Enough Research Supporting Efficacy
While everyone is unique, overall nutritional needs are relatively similar for the majority of people, says Keri Glassman, RD CDN. She says she isn't convinced there is enough research to support vitamin personalization.
"If I know I may be low in one nutrient area, I may decide to take a multivitamin to supplement my diet. But to go to the level of a personalized vitamin? It feels like a trend and marketing gimmick to me," she says.
2. The Online Assessments May Not Be Entirely Reliable
Harbstreet is skeptical of the accuracy and validity of the online quizzes the companies use. "I don't know how thorough those assessments really are," she says. "Short of speaking to a live person, I would take the results with a grain of salt."
3. They're Not a Cure-All
Fixating on minute differences and formulations may be splitting hairs in a way that's not helpful, Harbstreet says.
"Personalized vitamins can be a piece of the puzzle, but it's not going to be the one solution to the problem that someone is trying to address," she says. "It's never just one thing that's the answer."
4. They're Not Guaranteed to Be Safe
The same goes for all dietary supplements, because they're not reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration before they go to market. Instead, the FDA monitors any adverse events reportedly caused by the supplements after they hit store shelves.
How to Choose a Personalized Vitamin
If you decide to give personalized vitamins a try, don't make your choice based on the prettiest capsule. Instead, take a closer look at who is advising the company, what research the formulations are based on and what testing methods the company uses, Harbstreet says.
Ideally, the company should be advised by a group of medical professionals, and its research and testing should be done by unaffiliated third parties on large groups of humans (not animals).
Also, because supplements aren't reviewed by the FDA before they hit store shelves, look for third-party certifications from trusted companies like NSF or ConsumerLab.com. You should also check the company's website to see if it follows the FDA's Current Good Manufacturing Practice guidlines.
If you have questions, don't be afraid to ask your doctor or consult with a registered dietitian for more guidance.
A Better Way to Get More Vitamins
Vitamins and supplements are meant to supplement your diet, so before you shell out for personalized vitamins, step back and take a look at your overall diet and lifestyle. How's your diet? Are you skipping meals? Are you under-fueling your workouts? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you stressed?
"Sometimes people add supplements or vitamins to put a Band-Aid on a bigger issue. This isn't going to fix the problem in the long-term," Harbstreet says. "There are other ways to make a lateral move without resorting to something that's expensive and highly involved like personalized vitamins."
Glassman agrees: "There are so many factors to look at first before going so granular with personalized supplements. You may be a really healthy person but you're not getting enough greens or are missing out on nutrients like calcium, protein and vitamin B12 that you can get from food groups like dairy."
And even if you come up short on one nutrient, Glassman says eating real food rich in the desired vitamin or mineral is the best strategy. "You'll not only get the desired nutrient, but other nutrients in the food can help with absorption."
If you are concerned that you might be deficient in some areas, a blood panel to measure micronutrient levels and biomarkers will provide a more accurate snapshot than an online questionnaire, Harbstreet says. Make an appointment with a registered dietitian to discuss your results and overall diet to determine where you might be falling short.