By: Phoebe Chi, MD
Multivitamins. Have you ever wondered if taking one makes a difference? Whether you even need one? And if you take several supplements, how much is too much? In this post I will answer these important questions as well as provide you some tips on finding the perfect supplement for your needs…
One of the first things to consider when deciding whether or not you need a daily multivitamin is your diet. If you are pretty healthy and already eat a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats, chances are you likely already receive the nutrients that you need from your foods. In this case, studies show that a multivitamin may, in actuality, add little or no benefit to your health. Ask yourself: how does your diet compare to the diagram below?
Of course, even if you do follow a well-balanced diet, sometimes your body—for various reasons—simply needs more than what your meals can provide. While the evidence is somewhat conflicting—some studies show slight benefits while others don’t—I still believe that for most people, the potential health benefits of taking a daily multivitamin outweigh the potential risks. For this reason, some physicians like to think of a daily multivitamin in terms of it being a ‘micronutrient insurance.’ Nevertheless, this next section will help you determine if taking a multivitamin, and what kind, is best for you…
Consider taking a multivitamin if you are:
But talk to your doctor first if you are:
And be cautious if you are:
The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) is the maximum amount of daily vitamins and minerals that you can safely take without risk of an overdose or serious side effects. This is a useful measure to refer to if you are taking multiple supplements and want to know if you are getting too much of something. The available UL for common nutrients are provided below for your reference.
Be aware that some vitamins and minerals are riskier than others. Vitamin A, D, and E are a few that you should be more cautious about. Since they are considered fat-soluble, extra amounts accumulate in your tissues rather than excreted, potentially leading to toxic levels and negative health effects. This is why it is easier to overdose on vitamin D than, say, vitamin C (which is water-soluble and gets flushed out). Therefore, be careful to never take more than the recommended UL unless instructed by a physician (eg. for correcting a deficiency). Other riskier supplements to keep in mind include iron and selenium.
When choosing a multivitamin, try to find one tailored to your age, gender, and other characteristics (e.g., pregnancy). This is because there are important differences. For example, multivitamins for men often contain little or no iron, whereas those for seniors provide more calcium, vitamins D, and B12 than those for younger adults, and prenatal supplements generally have no vitamin A in the form of retinol.
On the label of every supplement, you will find the Percent Daily Value (%DV) This will serve as one of your main guides in selecting a multivitamin:
What to look for on the label:
Below is a sample label. Would this supplement be right for you?
In shopping for a multivitamin, more expensive (including ‘designer’ supplements) doesn’t necessarily mean more benefits, and standard store-brand supplements are usually just as good.
Tips for ensuring a quality product:
As with all supplements, check with your doctor first before starting a multivitamin, especially if you have health problems or are taking any medications (eg. blood thinners). At your next checkup, take all of your supplements along so that your doctor can review and discuss whether you’re taking the right types and amounts.
If your only supplement is the multivitamin, you can take it with any meal that’s convenient. However, if you are currently taking other supplements such as fish oil, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, or probiotics, refer to the diagram below to determine the best time to take yours (note: vitamin D can be taken with your multivitamin during a meal):
And with that, you’re all set. Here’s to healthy living!
*Like always, the information presented in this article is for educational purposes only, not to be used in place of medical advice or in diagnosis and treatment of conditions. Be sure to always discuss with your trusted health care provider before starting any supplements.