Multivitamins seem like a simple proposition: The once-a-day supplements are full of essential vitamins and minerals, helping to keep your body strong and prevent against disease. And to most Americans, these benefits are persuasive: A recent survey from the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), found that 76% of adults in the U.S. take a supplement; more than half pop a multivitamin.
But the science surrounding multivitamins is far from definitive.
A 2019 study from Tufts researchers, for instance, found that supplements don’t necessarily extend your lifespan—but getting the same amount of vitamins from your diet might. A 2018 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that multivitamins do not lower your risk of heart disease or stroke. And the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says that there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to recommend the use of multivitamins for cancer prevention.
When it comes to your health, your mom and grandma had it right all along: You should eat your veggies (and fruits). “The best approach to ensure you get a variety of vitamins and minerals is to adopt a broad healthy diet,” says Christina Clark, MD, a family practitioner at Detroit Medical Center’s Receiving Hospital.
Still: That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should ditch your multi entirely. We turned to experts—doctors and nutritionists—to untangle who needs a multi (and who doesn’t), along with all the other information you need to know about finding the best multivitamin.
Not sure if you need a multi? Here's what to consider
If you eat lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains and opt for heart-healthy fats and lean protein, you may not need a multivitamin, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, one-half of the Nutrition Twins, tells Health. Thanks to your healthy, balanced diet, you’re likely getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.
But your diet doesn’t always tell the full story about your vitamin needs, Lakatos says. A person’s blood work, genetics, personal history, and dietary choices should all be taken into consideration.
For example, vegans and vegetarians can often benefit from multivitamins, since their dietary restrictions can make it harder to get the nutrients their bodies require, says Lakatos. “However, even with vegans, it’s on a case-by-case basis,” she says. “If they are eating a varied vegan diet, we may not recommend a multi, simply individual supplements like vitamin B12 and iron.”
It is a good idea to talk to an expert—your doctor or a nutritionist—before you shop around. “Most supplements, if taken correctly, are safe, but it is important for those with various medical conditions or on medications to be aware of the possible side effects and interactions that these supplements can cause,” says Dr. Clark.
For some people, the benefits are significant
It’s not only vegetarians and vegans who may benefit from taking multivitamins.
If you’re expecting—or trying to conceive—your ob-gyn will recommend prenatal vitamin supplements.
“While it’s important to have a healthy diet during pregnancy, prenatal vitamins bridge the nutritional gap,” says Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln.
Some medical conditions predispose people to vitamin deficiencies, Dr. Clark adds. In that situation, “vitamin supplementation is both beneficial and often necessary,” she says.
Lakatos agrees. “We also often have our clients take a multivitamin who are at risk for vitamin deficiencies because they had gastric bypass, inflammatory bowel disease, or celiac disease.”
Dr. Clark adds that people who have an alcohol addiction can benefit from supplements, which may reduce complications due to the disease, while diabetics and people who are insulin-resistant might benefit from a multivitamin with at least 50 mcg of chromium, which may improve the responsiveness of insulin receptors to insulin.
What to look for in the store
The FDA does regulate multivitamins—but as a food, not a medication. That means manufacturers are legally free to make unsubstantiated, and even untruthful, claims on product packaging.
“If you read the very fine print in their labels you will find a statement acknowledging that their claims might be misleading and unsupported,” Dr. Clark says.
So here’s the first thing to know when you’re shopping for the best multivitamin for you: Read the full label. Be skeptical—very, very skeptical—about over-inflated claims.
Another important cautionary note: More of a good thing (in this case, vitamins and minerals) isn’t necessarily good for you. With rare exceptions, your body ensures you’re only digesting the amount of vitamins and minerals you need from food, says Lakatos. That is, even if you overdo it on clementine oranges, you won’t wind up with excessive, harmful amounts of vitamin C. “But when you take high amounts of a vitamin in a supplement form, you can get too much,” Lakatos says, and that can potentially cause toxicities that are harmful for your body. If your multivitamin contains more than the daily recommended value for any given vitamin, it can actually do more harm than good, she says.
Lakatos also lists three ingredients to avoid: artificial colors, titanium dioxide (linked to inflammation, kidney damage, and possibly cancer in animal studies), and carrageenan (also linked to inflammation). And, of course, if you have an allergy—to wheat, say—make sure to check your vitamins are free from the allergen, Lakatos adds.
To summarize: Avoid mega-doses, raise a skeptical eyebrow in response to too-good-to-be-true claims, and stay away from certain ingredients. That’s a lot of no-nos—here are things to seek out when you’re perusing the vitamin aisle.
Look for a multivitamin that contains vitamin D, magnesium, calcium, zinc, and (for women's multivitamins) iron, says Lakatos. And seek out vitamins that are formulated for your particular demographic, suggests the National Institutes of Health—that includes your age and gender.
Keep an eye out as you're browsing for the USP Verified Mark or NSF Mark on the packaging. These marks indicate the multi has been tested by nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia or NSF International, respectively, to confirm the product contains the items listed on its label. And seek out established brands, recommends Dr. Clark—the ones you consistently spot on pharmacy shelves as opposed to new-to-you options.
“All vitamins are not created equal,” says Dr. Clark. Some brands are a better option than others. "Look for ones that are sold in pharmacies and consult with the pharmacist about which ones they would recommend," she suggests. Your doctor can also make recommendations.
Lakatos endorses Pure Encapsulations ($35 for 60 capsules; amazon.com), which she says is trustworthy and has high quality and standards. Other trusted products include Kirkland Signature Daily Multi ($25 for 500 tablets; amazon.com), Nature Made Multi for Her ($9 for 90 tablets; amazon.com), and OLLY The Perfect Women's Multi ($12 for 90 amazon.comgummies; amazon.com).
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