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Do I Need a Multivitamin?

by Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, examine.com

The term 'multivitamin' refers to any supplement that contains essential vitamins or minerals. Multivitamins are usually a pill or tablet. There is no standard dose for multivitamins, since each supplement company has its own formula, marketed to their demographic of choice.

Who Should Take a Multivitamin?

Multivitamins are tempting because they offer a one-size-fits-all solution. Unfortunately, when it comes to nutrition, one size definitely does not fit everyone. Instead, the only vitamins and minerals you should supplement are those that you're not getting enough of through your diet.

Take a look at the label of your multivitamin. Do you really need more of all the ingredients listed? Probably not. To find out what vitamins you do need, you'll have to evaluate your diet.

Figure out What You're Eating

To figure out your deficiencies, track everything you eat (even snacks and drinks!) for three days. Make sure you track at least one day of weekend-eating too. It's often more difficult to stick to your regular diet when you're going out with friends or relaxing at home after a long week of work.

Once you've completed your food journal, look up the nutrition labels for the food you ate. Instead of focusing on the calories, check which vitamins and minerals you've been putting in your body. Finally, compare how much you're getting against the recommended daily value. Make a note of of every nutrient you consistently didn't get enough of during your three-day evaluation.

Chances are, you're only lacking a couple vitamins and minerals. If it turns out you have deficiencies across the board, don't reach for that multivitamin just yet. Now that you've armed yourself with knowledge of your own eating habits, you can take control of your diet and consciously fix your deficiencies. Modifying your diet to address your nutritional deficiencies is cheaper and far more delicious than relying on a multivitamin.

What If I Can't Change What I Eat?

Special dietary restrictions can make modifying your diet difficult. If you're at risk for several deficiencies and can't make significant changes to what you eat, a multivitamin could be a viable solution.

Before taking a multivitamin, make sure that the formula you choose contains enough of the nutrients you need. Most of the time, it's cheaper to buy individual vitamin supplements than shelling out for a multivitamin. If your only deficiencies are vitamin D and magnesium, why would you pay for the rest of the pill?

Pregnant women and elderly people are the most likely to benefit from multivitamin supplementation. Pregnancy increases the body's demand for various nutrients (like folic acid), so a multivitamin can reduce complications during pregnancy. Elderly people are at a higher risk for vitamin deficiencies in general (vitamin B12 deficiencies are particularly common), which makes multivitamins an effective supplement.

The Multivitamin Verdict

Though supplementing specific nutrients is a great way to improve health, studies show taking a multivitamin for general health doesn't provide much of a benefit. In fact, getting too much of a vitamin or mineral can be dangerous, since high concentrations of nutrients like vitamin A can be toxic. Other vitamins, like vitamin E, are not toxic in high doses, but can still cause adverse health effects.

In general, however, multivitamins are not harmful. Still, they may do some serious damage to your wallet, particularly if you're shelling out for the whole package when you only lack one or two vitamins.