By Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD
I’m a dietitian, but I get almost as many questions about dietary supplements as food. People like to know what they should eat, and they seem nearly as curious about what, and how much, vitamins and minerals to take.
A recent negative report has fueled the curiosity and confusion about multivitamins, Americans’ favorite dietary supplement. The study, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, concluded that women who took multivitamins or individual supplements, such as folic acid, vitamin B6, magnesium, iron, and copper, died earlier.
I haven’t stopped taking multivitamins and neither has my husband or my three daughters. Here’s why the results of the study, however alarming to some, haven’t convinced me to ditch our daily “multi.”
The conclusion of a single study, positive or negative, is rarely, if ever, the final word on the matter. It’s also important to note that in this latest study, researchers looked at the effects of multivitamins and other dietary supplements in postmenopausal women only, and nobody in my family fits that description. In addition, this was an observational study. Observational studies are typically used as grounds for other types of studies that provide more conclusive results.
That said, dietary supplements are just what the name implies, not a magic bullet for fighting off illness. Along with a healthy lifestyle, a balanced eating plan provides most of the nutrients you need for wellness and to prevent chronic conditions, such as cancer and heart disease.
Yet, experts agree that a healthy eating plan can’t satisfy everyone’s nutrient needs. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans maintains that dietary supplements and fortified foods may be necessary to supply adequate amounts of vitamins B12 and D, folic acid, and iron. I’m prone to deficiencies of three of those nutrients, and so are my daughters. My husband may not get enough of all four.
Rather than taking several different vitamin and mineral pills every day, it’s reasonable to opt for a multivitamin to fill in small nutrient gaps. Here are some groups of people that benefit from a daily multivitamin with about 100% of the Daily Value for the nutrients it provides:
- Women in their childbearing years who need 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to help prevent birth defects during early pregnancy
- Vegans, and other people who don’t get enough vitamin B12 from food, and people over the age of 50 (who may not absorb enough natural vitamin B12 from foods)
- Those of us living in the northern part of the country. Strong sunlight sparks vitamin D production in the skin, and we’re at greater risk for deficiency because we don’t make any vitamin D for six months a year. With the exception of milk, certain fatty fish, and fortified eggs, food is a poor source of vitamin D.
Do you need a multivitamin? Chances are, yes. After all, nobody eats perfectly every day. But to be sure, consult with a registered dietitian (R.D.) to better understand where your diet consistently falls short and how to fix nutrient gaps with dietary improvements and supplements, if necessary. Even if you don’t need a multi or other supplements, you may need them in the future, so review your diet on a regular basis.
Always choose supplements tailored to your gender and age. For example, post-menopausal women, and men, should take a multivitamin with very little or no iron. (That’s the kind my husband takes.) Current and former smokers should avoid multivitamins with high levels of beta-carotene or vitamin A because studies have linked the nutrients to an increased risk of lung cancer. And people with a history of cancer should check all dietary supplements with their doctors first.
There’s a lot that dietary supplements cannot do for you. For instance, they lack energy, protein, fiber, and phytonutrients, powerful plant compounds that protect against cell damage. And, the jury is out on the safety of large doses of certain single nutrients, such as vitamins C and E. However, in moderate amounts, it’s likely that dietary supplements, particularly multivitamins, do more good than harm as they help you to satisfy your daily nutrient requirements.
What, if anything, do you take for dietary supplements, and why?