Did you know? Nearly 7 in every 10 Americans take one multivitamin every day (Source: Center for Responsible Nutrition, 2015 CRN Survey on Dietary Supplements). That’s more than the number of folks who eat a sandwich everyday! So multivitamin supplements are really popular! And yet, do we actually know what they do and whether they really work?
Before we begin, the first rule. Multivitamins are a dietary ‘supplement’. We need to be mindful of that word. A supplement is something that adds to our healthy diet. It is not a replacement for healthy eating. Eating well-balanced, nutritious meals is the bedrock of good nutrition.
Many of us rush from work to the gym to home to children’s events or social activities. We don’t leave time to enjoy a large sit-down breakfast or brown-bag healthy lunch and eat home-cooked dinners regularly. Most days we grab a granola bar to eat in the car, visit the closest fast-food restaurant for lunch and either skip dinner and then enjoy a late-night snack or order a take-out pizza for the family. While we’re young, our bodies are able to withstand this onslaught. As we age, our bodies can adapt to such days occasionally, but not on a regular basis.
That’s just the beginning. Add to this…
The quadruple-whammy that we subject our bodies to is crystal clear.
Adding a high-quality multivitamin to our daily routine can help us regain the right balance of vitamins, minerals and other healthy co-factors and give us a strong foundation for good health.
Let’s start by calling it like it is. The jury is divided right down to the middle. Some folks believe that it’s pointless to supplement with multivitamins. Some believe it makes eminent sense, for the reasons stated earlier. We fall in the latter group, which is quite large in the USA – 7 out of every 10 Americans.
So here’s what multivitamins seem to do, as per studies.
A 2014 study that re-examined data from the 2001-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that 40% of Americans had inadequate intake of vitamins A, C, D and E, calcium and magnesium. When our diet lacks the appropriate nutrients and vitamins, a multivitamin supplement helps correct deficiencies. Researcher TS Dharmarajan states that this is especially true for all of us as we age. The quality of our stomach acid declines with age, leading to poorer absorption of a variety of vitamins from food. Vitamin deficiencies may also occur if we follow vegetarian or vegan diets (those that exclude certain food groups, such as meat or dairy).
While this one benefit (correcting vitamin deficiencies) may not seem like much initially, it could have amazing implications. It could lead to varied benefits for different organs and functions in our body. The body uses these micronutrients to do everything, from creating energy, removing wastes to fighting infections and inflammation and keeping us healthy. If you don’t have them in sufficient quantity, consuming them could be like turning on a bright light in a dark room.
The Physicians’ Health Study II (PHS II) is a landmark study that observed reasonably healthy middle-aged and older men (mean age of 64 years) who were separated into random groups and were given multivitamin supplementation or a placebo pill for a staggering 11 years. The study found that the group that received multivitamins had a reduced incidence of cancer by 8%. The reduction in relapse rate was even more pronounced, at 27%, in men who had a history of cancer. This result prompted the researchers to conclude that “the results of PHS II may have a considerable public health impact, potentially translating to prevention of approximately 68,000 cancers per year if all men were to use similar supplements”.
When subjects took a multivitamin prior to performing cognitive testing, researchers Kennedy et al. found that the multivitamin increased blood flow to the brain, increased energy expenditure and aided the conversion of fats for fuel. Multiple studies showed that it led to better memory in the elderly and more stabilized moods in the young and old.
According to Australian Family Physician, a combination of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, beta carotene, zinc oxide and cupric oxide is helpful for slowing down age-related macular degeneration.
Apparently, veterans in the industry swear by the saying “the most expensive supplement is the one that doesn’t work!”
For a multi-vitamin to work well for you, here’s what you need to watch out for:
A multivitamin that contains vitamins and minerals at the bare minimum Daily Value (DV) as recommended by the FDA may ensure that you don’t suffer from an acute deficiency of those nutrients or that you don’t overdose. But, it may not bring you the highest health benefits either. Results from the 2015 CRN survey on dietary supplements that were released just last week show that 51% of Americans took dietary supplements for their ‘overall health/wellness benefits’. If that is your goal too, you may want to look beyond DV. Most multivitamin labels will show a percentage of the DV of vitamins and minerals contained in the capsule. For example, the FDA recommends 60 mg of Vitamin C each day. To receive the vision-boosting benefits, The Age Related Disease Study performed research using 500 mg of Vitamin C a day. For managing osteoporosis, researchers suggest 800 IU of Vitamin D and 1200 mg a day of Calcium, compared with the much lower recommended DV of 400 UI and 1000 mg. Many multivitamins are now available in high-potency options which provide us with higher quantities of vitamins and minerals. However, we can also take one multivitamin pill or capsule in the morning and another in the evening to increase our daily dosage. Here’s a sample label of the sorts of doses that a good quality multivitamin should contain.
Once you find products with decent doses of individual vitamins, minerals and co-factors, do a shortlist. Independent agencies like ConsumerLab.com and Labdoor.com do testing to monitor quality control in supplements. Check if they have tested the product you want to buy and if it stood up to the scrutiny. They also have lists of products that have passed with flying colours, so this could be a good way of identifying a quality product from your shortlist too.
Since it may not be possible to get optimum nutrients at every meal, it is a good idea to take your multivitamins every day. In fact, taking the multivitamins twice a day may help since many of us skip veggies and fruit at several meals, leading to lopsided levels of nutrients in our system through the day. The option of having the dosage split across the day exists also because you cannot take more than a certain amount of some nutrients at one go, like calcium, for example. So, it is more advisable to take a multivitamin once in the morning and once at the end of the day.
Like pretty much everything else, there is always the possibility of some people not reacting well to a particular multivitamin. So, never exceed label doses and always listen to your body. Since multi-vitamins contains many vitamins, minerals and cofactors, your body could react to something in it. Always consult a medical practitioner in case this happens.
The body is an amazing machine. It grows, heals, recovers and supports us in all of our activities. The one limitation it has is that it cannot make vitamins and minerals. We must supply it with these key nutrients to support our health, boost our immune system, address chronic health conditions and help us convert our food into energy. Taking one or two, multivitamin supplements per day is a convenient and affordable way of caring for a body that takes care of us.
“What we Eat in America”: USDA Agriculture Research Service, 2014
Improvements in memory and mood