With the rise of personalized supplements, it's easier than ever to get into a daily vitamin routine. But chances are, you don't really need to.
By Korin Miller and Audrey Noble
For a lot of people, their daily health and wellness routine includes taking a multivitamin every day. With the rise of personalized vitamins and more than a third of all Americans taking daily multivitamins, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it's never been easier to cocktail the perfect nutritional regimen for your specific health needs. But all these options can also make things more confusing. What are multivitamins exactly? And does everyone need them?
"Multivitamins are generally a combination of various vitamins (and minerals) put together in a supplement and often referred to as a form of insurance against nutritional deficiencies," says registered dietician and adviser for Precision Nutrition Ryan Andrews tells Allure. Andrews adds that not every multivitamin is the same, as they contain different amounts of nutrients and can be tailored to specific types of people and lifestyles (like if you're pregnant or vegetarian).
"Multivitamins are great ways to pack a variety of essential vitamins into one or two daily pills," adds board-certified endocrinologist Brittany Henderson. "Other vitamins are more targeted whereas a multivitamin acts as a nutritional foundation to optimal health."
That said, multivitamins aren't magic pills that you take to fix all of your nutritional needs. Experts warn against solely relying on multivitamins to stay healthy. "A multivitamin can't take the place of eating a variety of foods and food groups," Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian in New York City and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, tells Allure. "Vitamins and minerals found in foods are more readily absorbed and used than those found in supplements."
It's all about balance and knowing that multivitamin use isn't totally cut and dry. So if this supplement is something you've been wanting to incorporate into your routine, here's what the experts want you to know about multivitamins, and how to tell if they're right for you.Meet the experts:
Brittany Henderson, MD, a board-certified endocrinologist
Ryan Andrews, RD, a registered dietician and adviser for Precision Nutrition
Alissa Rumsey, RD, a registered dietician and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness
Beth Warren, RD, a registered dietician, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition, and author of Living a Real Life with Real Food
Keri Gans RD, registered dietician and author of The Small Change Diet
What is a multivitamin?
There's no standard definition for what nutrients in what quantities need to be in a supplement to make it a multivitamin, according to the NIH. However, there are a few common vitamins and minerals found in a range of multivitamins, says registered dietitian nutritionist Beth Warren, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life with Real Food. These include calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, vitamin D, several B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin K, potassium, iodine, selenium, borate, zinc, manganese, molybdenum, beta-carotene, and iron.
Generally, multivitamins are made in pill, tablet, or gummy form with nutrient levels close to their Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), the NIH says. However, there are variations: Some multivitamins are designed specifically for kids, men, women, pregnant women, or senior citizens, and presumably contain more of the vitamins or minerals that these groups might need.
What does a multivitamin do for your body?
Despite what some ads may imply, a multivitamin won't magically turn you into an energetic superhero, and an oral vitamin for skin is not an instant fix for your complexion concerns. What it can do, though, is cover for deficiencies in your diet says, Gina Keatley, a certified dietitian-nutritionist practicing in New York City. "The more processed a food item is, the more likely it is that it will be deficient in vitamins and minerals," she explains. A multivitamin is supposed to provide for what processing can remove from our food. Registered dietitian and nutritionist Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet, points out that multivitamins can help us make up for nutritional shortfalls when we're not getting an adequate range of whole foods in our diets. They're "almost like a safety net to ensure that you are consuming plenty of important vitamins and minerals," she says.
Who can benefit most from taking a multivitamin?
Unless you're planning to become pregnant or are pregnant or have a particular nutrient deficiency, you probably don't need a multivitamin, Rumsey says. (And yes, there are risks to taking supplements if you don't actually need them — more on that below.) While research has found that multivitamins probably won't boost your health as much as we've been lead to believe, they have the potential to be useful for certain groups of people. Keatley cites people who have poor-quality diets, people who have difficulty with digestion (such as those who have had gastric bypass surgery or have Crohn's disease), and the elderly as some potential candidates for multivitamin use. Rumsey also points to those who avoid animal products as a group that could benefit: "Vegans and vegetarians should consider taking a supplement that contains vitamin B12, and potentially calcium, iron, and zinc," she says.
According to the NIH, it's also generally recommended that people who want to become pregnant get 400 micrograms of folic acid a day (either through their diets or a supplement) to lower the risk of neural tube defects in newborns. In terms of other people who may want to consider a multivitamin, Keatley says the most common deficiencies in the U.S. are iron, calcium, and vitamins B12. Being deficient in any one of these will make you feel tired, which is a pretty vague symptom. Still, if you're struggling with fatigue, it's worth asking your doctor for a blood test to see if a deficiency could be to blame.
What should I look for in a multivitamin?
If you determine you could benefit from a multivitamin, Dr. Henderson says to make sure there are sufficient amounts of each vitamin advertised on the bottle in your multivitamins. ("You're looking for close to one hundred percent [on the ingredient label] for all," she says.) Andrews recommends going with organic, whole-food-based multivitamins when possible.
It's also a good idea to opt for a multivitamin that has around 100 percent of the RDA for the different nutrients, Rumsey says, and to look for "USP" on the label, which means the product meets standards set by the United States Pharmacopeia.
Andrews says to also look for a brand that has "GMP," which stands for good manufacturing practices and is the main regulatory standard for ensuring quality in human pharmaceuticals, or make sure it is stamped by the National Sanitation Foundation ("NSF" on the label), which certifies that the ingredients on the label are the only ingredients used in the multivitamins. He adds that you'll also want to make sure the brand has records of third-party testing for contaminants, which you can check on sites like Consumer Lab and LabDoor.
Are there downsides or risks to taking multivitamins?
Dr. Henderson says the most tangible downside to taking multivitamins is the imbalance of getting specific nutrients; your body might end up with too much of something or too little. "Because multivitamins have multiple nutrients packed in a small package, many times the amount of each vitamin is small or limited," she says. "It is important, therefore, to look at the dosing of each vitamin on the back of the bottle [and] run it by your medical practitioner to make sure it's giving you sufficient coverage in each area."
Andrews agrees and says that while multivitamins exist to offer nutrients to keep us healthy, using them as the only source of getting nutrients doesn't add any benefit and can sometimes lead to more problems. “Chronically consuming excessive amounts of certain nutrients — especially in synthetic forms — removed from the whole food matrix may lead to negative health outcomes,” he says.
There are also certain groups of people who are especially at risk for side effects from certain types of vitamins and minerals. For example, smokers and those who are pregnant should avoid excessive consumption of supplements heavy in vitamin A. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies show that smokers are more prone to lung cancer when taking oral Vitamin A supplements. The Mayo Clinic also points out that excessive intake of iron can lead to stomach pains and — on the more severe side — an iron overdose. Andrews also cautions those on blood-thinning medications should be careful with vitamin K supplements, as studies show those can cause blood clots when combined together. Again, if you're considering taking a multivitamin, run by your doctor first.
Last but not least, multivitamins are an investment. If you had to choose between spending money on multivitamins or cultivating a nutrient-dense diet, Andrews says it's better to spend your money on the latter as that will pay off in the long term healthwise.
So, is it good to take a multivitamin every day?
Assuming a multivitamin is the right choice for you, Andrews says that instructions will differ based on the exact formulation of the multivitamin, but in general, they are supposed to be taken daily with food. If you're worried about getting too much of a certain nutrient, you can take the part-time route. Just check with your doctor for the best course of action. Dr. Henderson says multivitamins can be taken with or without food, and she suggests taking them in the morning if the multivitamin contains something energizing, like B12.
Is it bad if you take too much of a multivitamin?
Multivitamins seem pretty harmless (when taken correctly), but it's actually possible to consume too much, Gans says. Fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, or K can be stored in your body and toxic at high enough levels. (You usually just pee out water-soluble vitamins like folic acid, vitamin C, and B12 if you have too much of them.) If you forget you've taken your daily multivitamin and accidentally take a second, you should be fine, just don't make a habit out of it. And before you start taking a multivitamin, check in with your doctor first: Certain vitamins can interact with medications, and it's best to err on the side of caution.
This story originally appeared in Allure.