Approximately one-third of American adults take a multivitamin regularly. If you don't currently take a supplement, adding a multivitamin to your daily regimen seems like the natural next step to accompany a healthy diet and exercise routine. But, like anything else we put in our bodies, it's worth learning a little more about multivitamins before stocking our cabinets and ingesting them on a regular basis.
First things first — how exactly does a multivitamin work? "Our body produces vitamins that are critical to organ function but often times due to diet and other health factors the body may not produce enough," Dr. Latisha Rowe of the Rowe Telemedicine Network told POPSUGAR. "Multivitamins ensure we always have sufficient amounts of vitamins so our organs can work appropriately. Vitamin D, for example, plays a role in bone and immune system function."
Dr. Diana Ramos, OBGYN, co-chair of the National Preconception Health and Health Care Initiative (PCHHC) explained that multivitamins provide micronutrients, which are the building blocks of the body. "Generally, most of these micronutrients can be acquired through a healthy balanced diet," Ramos told POPSUGAR. "Multivitamins can help you achieve a full range of vitamins or minerals that you may fall short by just eating and drinking."
For certain people, multivitamins can make a major difference in health. Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Doctor on Demand explained that individuals on restrictive diets and people suffering from alcoholism and autoimmune illnesses benefit from multivitamins.
"Multivitamins have not been shown to improve mortality in the United States or other nations where the population has access to a nutritious diet," Tong said. "However, they may be life saving or of critical importance to people with alcohol dependence, those who eat very restricted diets, or populations living in developing nations who lack food security."
New York-based physician Dominick Basile, MD, told POPSUGAR that, although there's no detriment to taking a multivitamin each day, "it's rare that in the United States we come across anyone who has a true vitamin deficiency." Basile noted that it's more important to focus on eating "real," healthy food and maintaining a diet that's high in vegetables and fruits. In short, no amount of multivitamins can replace the benefits of healthy eating.
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, advised to proceed with caution when taking multivitamins. After all, even things that are natural and healthy can be harmful if we take them in large quantities and don't really need them. "Because there isn't great evidence that vitamin supplementation does any good, and because it is possible that vitamin supplements might cause harm; it is unclear whether taking a multivitamin supplement is worthwhile," Mintz told POPSUGAR. "The best advice is to eat a normal, well-balanced diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables."
Mintz added that there are exceptions — women who are pregnant or may become pregnant benefit from prenatal vitamins, and a multivitamin with extra iron could be helpful for women who have heavy menstrual bleeding. And, although the consensus among doctors is that a healthy diet should be our top priority, Mintz said that "people who may not be able to eat as healthy as they would like might consider taking a multivitamin supplement."
If you think you would benefit from a multivitamin supplement, Tong suggested speaking with your doctor about dosages. He explained that, because the FDA does not regulate food supplements like multivitamins or minerals, it's important for consumers to make sure they're informed. "Read bottles and labels or consult a physician or dietician to help determine if a specific multivitamin is healthy, worthless, or even toxic," Tong suggested.
Arielle Levitan MD, cofounder of Vous Vitamin LLC, is a proponent of multivitamins — but she strongly suggested using a "personalized" multivitamin that's tailored based on your diet, lifestyle, and health concerns. "The bottom line is multivitamins work by filling in nutritional gaps that most of us have in our diets," Levitan told POPSUGAR. "[But] we are not all the same and do not have the same vitamin needs. Many off-the-shelf multivitamins contain tons of ingredients, essentially throwing in the kitchen sink. The list is long and also full of chemicals and additives. Taking too much of the wrong thing is not good for you and can cause harm. And conversely, many off-the-shelf multivitamins contain insufficient amounts of many nutrients."
The doctors have spoken and a healthy diet should be our top priority. But if you're a person who would benefit from a multivitamin, consult with your primary care physician in order to find the multivitamin option that's best suited to you.