"Using a multi is a good insurance policy," says Ronald Hoffman, MD, a wellness-oriented integrative physician in private practice in New York. Fortunately, this type of policy, unlike those sold by health insurance companies, is easier than ever to obtain.
No longer confined to pills, today's multis also come in liquids and powders, and ingredients have evolved beyond specific vitamins and minerals. Many multivitamin products contain concentrated whole foods, antioxidant fruit blends, superfoods such as spirulina, and probiotics and/or digestive enzymes to mimic nature and enhance absorption of nutrients. Some supplements are made with raw food ingredients; other options include vegetarian, kosher, organic, or gluten free. There are even effervescent powders.
Which one should you choose? That depends upon your diet and goals.
"If you're striving for optimum health, you'll be better served by higher-quality products with a more comprehensive range of nutrients in quantities shown to enhance overall well-being," says Alicia Stanton, MD, who specializes in preventive health and hormone balance in Glastonbury, Conn.
Multis contain essential vitamins and minerals, meaning those our bodies can't produce and must obtain from food or supplements. To remain in optimum health, have ample energy, and withstand the stresses of daily life, Hoffman and Stanton suggest looking for multis with these approximate quantities of key vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin A: up to 5,000 IU, with up to 15,000 IU of mixed carotenoids. Carotenoids are antioxidants that give yellow and orange plants their vibrant color, and our bodies use them to make vitamin A. Too much vitamin A can be toxic, but carotenoids don't carry the same liability. On the other hand, some people have difficulty converting carotenoids to vitamin A, so a combination of both offers the best of both worlds. Sometimes, carotenoids are listed separately on a supplement label, further down on the list.
- B Vitamins: While amounts of individual B's may vary, aim for approximately 50 mg each of vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin or niacinamide), B5 (pantothenic acid), and B6 (pyridoxine); look for 500 mcg of B12. Because they can increase energy levels, B's are best taken early in the day.
- Folic Acid: 400 to 800 mcg. A B vitamin, folic acid is critical for women who may bear children, to prevent birth defects, and for everyone for a healthy heart and mind.
- Vitamin C: 500 to 1,000 mg. A stress buffer and antioxidant, vitamin C should be taken in divided doses for best absorption. Take extra in times of stress. Diarrhea is a sign of taking too much, and is corrected by taking less.
- Vitamin D: 1,000 to 2,000 IU. Essential for all aspects of health, amounts of vitamin D in multis may not be sufficient and you may need an additional vitamin D supplement.
- Vitamin E: 400 IU with mixed tocopherols. Tocopherols are a family of nutrients, including vitamin E. Getting a combination increases benefits.
- Calcium: 500 mg. Adults need 1,000 mg daily, and 1,200 mg daily after age 50, from all sources. Supplements should make up the shortfall in your diet.
- Magnesium: 250 to 400 mg. Most people need more magnesium than a multi can provide. For restful sleep, Stanton recommends taking an additional 400 mg of magnesium glycinate or 600 mg of the oxide form before bedtime. If diarrhea occurs, cut back.
Key Trace Minerals
Needed in very small quantities, trace minerals have a significant impact on health. Key ones include 200 mcg of chromium to control blood sugar and cravings; 200 mcg of selenium to support internal antioxidant production; 20 to 40 mg of zinc, an antioxidant required by every cell; 1 to 2 mg copper to support connective tissue production; and 5 mg manganese for connective tissue and antioxidant production.
How Many Pills?
One serving of a multi may be one to six pills (or a packet) per day. The dose may also contain fish oil. Otherwise, approximately 3 g of fish oil is the usual recommended amount. The best type for you depends on your diet, lifestyle, and state of health. If in doubt, check with a health professional who specializes in nutrition. Generally, the more you spread the nutrients out over the course of the day, the better your absorption of nutrients.
If you compare the nutritional content of food-based products with more traditional multi pills, you might see smaller amounts of key vitamins, such as B's and C, in some food-based versions. Foods contain a very broad range of nutrients, and because these types of formulations aim to mirror nature, they provide a wide variety of bioavailable ingredients to support well-being. The important thing is to find what works best for you.
Nature's Way Alive! Whole Food Energizer Multi-Vitamin combines 29 nutrients from natural sources to support energy and overall health, and is easily digested and absorbed.
New Chapter Organics Every Woman's One Daily is made with vitamins and minerals cultured in organic soy to deliver probiotic nutrients. The whole-food, organic formulation can safely be taken on an empty stomach.
Life's Fortune Multi-vitamin & Mineral supplies whole-food concentrates for increased energy and vitality. The specialized formula dissolves within 28 minutes for quick absorption.
Garden of Life Vitamin Code Men is specially formulated for men, with nutrients to support concerns including prostate and heart health. This multi is made from RAW, whole-food nutrients, and contains live, active probiotics.
Bluebonnet Nutrition Targeted Multiples Veggie Choice provides targeted personalized nutrition with vitamins and minerals that specifically address the needs of vegetarians.
Country Life Realfood Organics Your Daily Nutrition is a whole-foods supplement that can be taken with or without food to promote energy, bone strength, and joint mobility.
Natural Vitality Organic Life Vitamins blends antioxidants derived from fruits and vegetables, plus amino acids, enzymes, and trace minerals in a liquid formula that is readily available to the body.
Rainbow Light Complete Nutritional System Multivitamin delivers phytonutrients from green foods and vegetable concentrates, plus herbs and plant-based enzymes for digestive support. One serving measures 1,221 on the ORAC antioxidant scale-equal to a full-size serving of antioxidant-rich foods such as raspberries or spinach.