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A study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that 70% of adults surveyed use a daily supplement, and multivitamins are the most popular. Research by The Vitamin Shoppe found that among supplement users, 72 percent regularly take a multivitamin.
But are they necessary, or are they a waste of money?
What the Science Shows
Basic, low-dose one-a-day multis offer insurance against nutritional deficiencies, but higher-dose products can help you rise above simply being “okay” to achieve optimum health. That may mean having more energy or less stress or being more alert. Or, maybe it’s a sense of feeling better overall.
“On any given day, if you fall short in one or more nutrients, you’ll fill that gap with a multivitamin,” says Duffy MacKay, ND, vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition and a naturopathic doctor in private practice. It would be impossible to guess whether you’re missing a B vitamin, or C, or a mineral, for example, so the multi covers your bases.
Given that American diets are typically too rich in calories but too poor in nutrients, says MacKay, “A multi is a nice zero-calorie, nutrient-dense way to offset that pattern.” But there’s more.
Bonus Benefits of Taking a Multi
Studies have identified some specific benefits, including:
Less Hunger, More Weight Loss: Women taking multis were less hungry while losing weight on a diet and exercise program, and men on the program lost more weight with multis, according to a Canadian study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Researchers noted that subtle shortfalls of various nutrients may interfere with hormones that normally turn off hunger during and after meals, and multis can correct the problem.
Slower Aging: A study of 586 women, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that cells of those who took multis were younger, with less age-related DNA damage, compared to those who didn’t take the supplements. The same type of study has not been done with men.
Better Memory: An analysis of 10 earlier studies, with a total of 3,200 men and women, found that multis improved memory, and men also experienced improved alertness and well-being. The analysis was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Less Cancer: The Physicians’ Health Study tracked nearly 15,000 male physicians for approximately 11 years. The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that those taking a multi had 12 percent less risk for all cancers other than prostate cancer, which was most often not malignant or life-threatening.
Fewer Deaths from Heart Disease: Among more than 77,000 men and women in Washington state middle-aged or older, taking multivitamins (even low-dose ones) for 10 years reduced the risk of death from heart disease by 16 percent, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Taking more than 320 IU of vitamin E daily (an amount found in many high-dose multis) reduced risk further, by 28 percent.
Healthier Babies: Studies that tracked a total of more than 43,000 pregnant women found that those who took multis before and during pregnancy reduced risk of premature or low-birth-weight babies, who are predisposed to more diseases throughout life. The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and other scientific journals.
How to Find a High-Quality Multivitamin
On the Supplements Facts section of a label, “Percent Daily Value,” or “% DV,” provides important information. The Daily Value is established by the FDA as, “a sufficient amount of each nutrient to prevent deficiencies, and the number indicates the percent of that amount.” Basic low-dose multis contain no more than 100% of the Daily Value of essential vitamins and some minerals.
However, for optimum health, many professionals trained in nutrition consider that we need higher amounts of many nutrients. As an example, the Daily Value for vitamin C is 60 mg, but their recommendation is usually at least 500 mg of the vitamin. For thiamin (vitamin B1) the Daily Value is 1.7 mg, but for optimum health, at least 25 mg is usually recommended. An asterisk means that the FDA has not established a Daily Value for that nutrient.
If you simply want to prevent nutritional deficiencies, a low-dose multi with approximately 100% of Daily Values will do the job. But if optimum health is your goal, choose a higher-dose multi.
Products for optimum health: Nutritionally-oriented physicians usually recommend looking for these amounts of key nutrients: 25 mg or more of most B vitamins (B12 is measured in mcg); 800-1,000 IU of vitamin D; 500 mg or more of vitamin C; 200 mcg of chromium (good for controlling blood sugar and cravings); and the mixed tocopherol form of vitamin E, which is the form found in nature. One daily serving typically consists of more than one pill.
Your personal situation: These are some specific needs that products are designed to meet: pregnancy, the years approaching menopause, menopause and beyond, health for men, energy and recovery for athletes, countering stress, and boosting energy. Multis are also formulated for children and teens. Multis with iron may be appropriate for women in their child-bearing years, or if blood tests show low levels.
Beyond vitamins and minerals: Higher-dose multis may contain other types of nutrients, including enzymes (such as papain) and probiotics (such as acidophilus) to improve absorption; amino acids to support muscles and other lean tissues; additional antioxidants to counteract toxins and aging; and herbs and other natural substances to provide targeted benefits, such as chlorella (an algae) to remove toxins and improve cellular repair or bee pollen for energy.
How to get maximum benefits: Make your multi a daily habit—the greatest benefits come from consistent use. For best absorption, split the daily serving into two or three doses, just like with food. Always take your multi with meals, starting with breakfast. Store supplements in a cool, dry place—never in the bathroom cabinet. And, if you take medications, check for possible interactions with your doctor.