The promise of a multivitamin is alluring. They provide an easy and convenient way to help make sure all your daily nutrient needs are being met. A whole food multivitamin sounds even better.
Now you can get a daily dose of fruits and vegetables just from swallowing a small capsule.
What’s the truth? Can a multivitamin really make up for the shortcomings of an otherwise unhealthy diet and help promote health and wellness?
What Is a Multivitamin?
A multivitamin is a dietary supplement that contains a concentrated amount of vitamins and minerals. The FDA regulates multivitamins.
There are no guidelines on the number or amount of nutrients that need to included in a multivitamin. Right away this makes it hard to compare them because every brand contains it’s own unique combination of nutrients.
The only exception to this rule is potassium. Potassium can be harmful and even fatal at high doses.
The amount of potassium in over the counter supplements is limited to 100 mg or less per serving. This is equivalent to less than 5% of our daily needs.
Typically a multivitamin will include other ingredients. There will be carbohydrate based fillers to add bulk, sweeteners for taste (why do you think those gummies taste so good?) and coloring for a more fun appearance.
There are also no rules or regulations regarding nutrient source. The nutrients in a multivitamin may have been extracted from real foods or created synthetically in a laboratory.
You may have heard that the source of a nutrient (real or synthetic) can impact our body’s ability to use it. This is not something I believe you should get hung up on. Continue reading to see why.
Can a Multivitamin Be Beneficial for Our Health?
To conduct nutritional studies, researchers look back at historical eating patterns by using food frequency questionnaires. They sometimes include questions about multivitamins and then attempt to compare outcomes years later.
As we just learned, there are no rules regarding nutrients in a multivitamin. And we know no two people consume the same diet. Think about your own household; even though you all eat the same base food no one eats exactly the same thing.
What this means is that it is very difficult to compare studies looking at the benefits of multivitamins. To many other variables can make change what happens, especially over a long period of time.
This explains why some studies and news articles find that people who take multivitamins on a daily basis have lower risk of heart disease or cancer. Other studies find no relationship or change in risk.
Researchers do try to adjust when analyzing long term trends. This means they try and account for factors like exercise and smoking and just look at the benefits of a multivitamin.
But if you ignore exercise how can you still say it was the added multivitamin and not the fact that someone lived a healthy lifestyle? You can’t.
If someone eats a generally healthy diet, takes a daily multivitamin, exercises often and then lives a long and healthy life, what was the true cause?
Unfortunately, there is nothing definitive that allows us to state that a multivitamin will help or hurt over the long term.
Are There Times When Vitamin Supplements Can Help?
There are situations where targeted individual nutrients are necessary and beneficial. For example, as we age, it becomes hard for our bodies to absorb Vitamin B12. For many older people a daily supplement becomes necessary.
Another example is vitamin D. Most of us are deficient. This is another case where a daily supplement is probably needed.
One last important point here. Do not self-diagnose. Don’t just assume based on how you feel or from reading a blog post on the internet that you are deficient in something.
Work with your doctor and do not rely on doctor Google to determine if you need a daily supplement of a specific nutrient.
Could a Multivitamin Be Harmful to Our Health?
In our culture there is a general prevailing belief that if some is good, more is better.
In the case of multivitamins they often provide a concentrated source of nutrients. You can easily exceed the daily recommended intake by 100% or more.
Remember what I wrote about potassium? More is decidedly not better. Meeting your daily potassium need is essential, exceeding them with a supplement could be deadly.
Excess iron and vitamin A can also be harmful. It is almost impossible to take in excessive amounts of vitamins and minerals through food alone.
You would have to eat a really large amount of a particular food before you begin to reach harmful levels of a nutrient. However one or two doses of a supplement could far exceed our daily needs.
What Is a Multivitamin Missing?
A multivitamin is a collection of vitamins and minerals with no rules defining what is or is not included. The exception is potassium.
Research has not given us clear direction one way or another in terms of long term benefits. We know that if you need more of a certain nutrient, supplements can certainly help. But more is not better.
There are 13 essential vitamins and 16 essential minerals which we need to eat each day for optimum health. Multivitamins are marketed for their ability to help fill in gaps where our diet may otherwise be deficient.
Even if a multivitamin contains all 29 essential nutrients, it’s still missing something.
Foods are more than just a collection of carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. There are hundreds of other plant based compounds, fibers, and other components of food that are active in our bodies. These plant based compounds are called phytonutrients.
These phytonutrients play a role in helping us achieve and maintain a state of health. And science is really just beginning to understand how important they are to our overall health.
Comparing a Multivitamin to Real Food
Let’s compare what you get from taking a multivitamin to what is contained in real food. We will use an orange as an example.
Oranges contain many essential nutrients including vitamin C, folate and several of the B vitamins.
However, an orange ALSO has over 170 different identified phytonutrients and more than 60 flavonoids, other plant based nutritional compounds which have activity in our bodies.
Pick any other fruit or vegetable and the story will be the same.
It is these plant based compounds that form the basis behind recommended eating patterns like the anti-inflammatory diet, Mediterranean diet and other plant based diets.
I am sure when and if these phytonutrients and flavonoids are determined to be essential for our bodies they will end up in a multivitamin.
In the meantime, studies on some of these isolated phytonutrients have shown promising results. Others are unclear whether it is the isolated compound or the combined effect of many of these nutrients in the whole food that are best for our health.
Either way, we only eat these compounds when we eat foods in their whole, unprocessed form.
Is a Whole Food Multivitamin Better?
And we arrive at the final discussion point for today. There are several whole food based multivitamin supplements on the market.
The suggestion is that you just have to take a pill and you can meet all your daily fruit and vegetable requirements.
This is also where we come back to a point I made earlier. Many whole food multivitamin supplement companies claim that the natural form of these vitamins and minerals are more easily used by our bodies.
Not only that they provide all of those great plant based compounds as well.
It is like a dream come true! Is it too good to be true though?
Research on Whole Food Multivitamins
There are some promising studies out there looking at the use of plant based supplements in specific areas and disease states.
As great as this idea may sound I could not find any studies showing to what degree these plant compounds actually survive the conversion from broccoli to powdered broccoli blend.
So are you truly getting the same benefits as you would from the whole food?
Let’s even go so far as to say that a whole food multivitamin does everything promised and the nutrients survive and are intact. Five a day no more, take a couple pills and live worry free right?
From a health and weight management perspective at least some of the benefit of eating fruits and vegetables is the fiber and it’s effects on fullness and gut health.
Sure you obtain the nutrients from the “100 mg broccoli blend” but what did you replace those calories with?
The overall quality of your diet will still have a significant impact on your long term health.
A whole food multivitamin taken with a fast food diet is not going to prevent the long term effects of excessive salt, sugar, and fat intake. No matter how many fruits and vegetables they can stuff into that tiny capsule.
This is why I said earlier not to obsess over the natural or synthetic form of vitamins; get them from your food and it’s a moot point.
Whole food based multivitamins cannot just replace the nutrients we miss out on when eating an unhealthy diet.
A Multivitamin Is NOT a Substitute for a Healthy Diet
Hopefully after reading today you have learned that even the best quality multivitamin cannot and should not take the place of real, unprocessed fruits and vegetables in our diet. Science is still just scratching the surface of what role many plant based compounds play in our health.
Targeted daily supplements may be necessary if you are deficient in a nutrient like vitamin D. But remember, work with a doctor and do not just self diagnose.
Unless you have a specific medical need where a doctor tells you to take a multivitamin you are better off saving your money. Put it toward purchasing more healthy whole foods that you can cook and eat in the comfort of your home.