All Multivitamins Are Not Created Equally

Each year Americans spend $30 billion on multivitamins and other supplements. Yet, the benefit of taking these supplements remains elusive. Scientific research has not demonstrated any value in (terms of chronic disease prevention) of taking multivitamins, in part because it is simply too difficult to get a definitive answer. Multivitamins are not all the same combinations of nutrients with the same doses, and the positive or negative effects of individual nutrients can’t be singled out.  

Why do people take multivitamins?

So why, if the benefits of multivitamins are unproven, do more than 50% of Americans take one each day?

A survey of 12,000 adults conducted from 2007 to 2010 by the Office of Dietary Supplements at the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that only 23% said their decision was based on advice from their doctor. Instead, nearly half said they took a multivitamin because they believed it would improve their health, and more than a third said they thought it would maintain their health. Their responses were part of the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Are Multivitamins Even Necessary?

Clearly, many people think they are doing the right thing by supplementing, but are they? It depends on what kind of multivitamin they’re taking. No supplement can meet all of your nutritional needs; a supplement cannot take the place of a Nutritarian diet with its full spectrum of both discovered and undiscovered nutrients. However, even when eating a nutrient-dense diet of plant-rich foods and minimizing animal products to enhance longevity, your intake of certain nutrients may still be at sub-optimal levels. Taking a multivitamin may make sense for most people, because even the most perfect diet can be sub-optimal in certain nutrients such as Vitamin D and B12 and some people have increased needs.  However, supplemental ingredients can also cause harm.  Many multivitamins supply high doses of certain nutrients (such as vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin E), which may be harmful at those doses. And some nutrients are better to get from food because of potential harms, even at appropriate doses; which is true with folic acid.

 A Good Diet Lays the Foundation for Safe Supplementation

The science isn’t clear on whether multivitamins provide any significant health benefit. However, the science is clear that eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense, whole plant foods does, increasing longevity and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The best use of a multivitamin is to complement a health-promoting diet by protecting against possible deficiencies and insufficiencies. Even the high-nutrient, plant-rich Nutritarian diet is low in some vitamins and minerals, namely those more readily found in animal products and Vitamin D, the sunshine Vitamin.

For example, plant foods do not contain vitamin B12 , and a Nutritarian diet can also be on the low side of zinc, iodine, vitamin K2, D3, and DHA. All adults over the age of 60 are particularly at-risk of B12 deficiency or insufficiency because of the body’s ability to absorb that vitamin declines with age. Vitamin B12 adequacy is important because it may offer protection against dementia.

But eating more animal products isn’t the answer because of the risks involved in ingesting too much animal protein, animal fats, heme iron and animal-based food pollutants. Meeting adequacy for these vitamins and minerals is an appropriate use of a multivitamin.

Read the Labels Carefully

When deciding which supplement is right for you, it is important to note that most multivitamins contain ingredients that can be harmful. When I began looking for multivitamin and mineral supplements that I could give to patients with confidence, I was disappointed. The multivitamins on the market all had too much of some things and too little of others. Even taking too much of something useful can be harmful. Plus, they almost always contained risky ingredients. Any supplement containing these ingredients, especially folic acid and Vitamin A could distort normal cellular biochemistry, negating any potential positive from the other helpful components. These supplemental ingredients may significantly increase the risk of cancer. As a result, I had to design my own line of multivitamins to exclude ingredients that have been shown to have health-degrading and cancer-promoting side effects, like beta-carotene, copper, vitamin A, and vitamin E.  

To learn about what supplements might be a valuable addition to your diet, use my free vitamin advisor to create a personalized supplement plan to help you achieve your health goals. 

3/18/2018 7:00:00 AM
Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a family physician, New York Times best-selling author and nutritional researcher who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional and natural methods. Dr. Fuhrman is an internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, and has appeared on hundreds of radio a...
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