Multivitamins are the most frequently used dietary supplements in the United States, with over half of the U.S. population reporting use according to my new research (click here). Taking a multivitamin helps people get the recommended amounts of vitamins and mineral when they cannot or do not meet these needs from food alone. Multivitamins cannot take the place of eating a variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet; foods provide more nutrients than just vitamins and minerals such as fiber. Think about a daily multivitamin as a nutrition insurance policy (especially for those ones of you who are like me and like to indulge on the occasional slice of pizza).
For people with certain health problems, multivitamin use might be advantageous. Several small clinical trials have shown promising effects of the long-term use of multivitamins on preventing vision loss in individuals who have or are predisposed to age-related macular degeneration. New research from Harvard University suggests that daily long-term multivitamin use decreases the risk of cancer by about 8-12%. This same clinical trial of 15,000 healthy male physicians found no effect of multivitamins on cardiovascular disease; however several other population studies have shown modest effects. The Harvard study did not find any adverse effects of multivitamin use over an 11-year period, thus reinforcing their safety. Other small clinical trials have found potential benefits of daily multivitamin use on cognitive function, most specifically short-term memory.
I recommend that most individuals take a multivitamin with food daily (I personally practice this healthy habit). This is even more important for women who are or might become pregnant (which will likely be prescribed as a “prenatal multivitamin” by your doctor). Multivitamin use by pregnant ensures that women get sufficient amounts of nutrients such as folic acid (which prevents neural tube defects in infants) and iron.
Always take your multivitamin with food (I take mine with lunch). This helps spread out the absorption of nutrients and helps get rid of that nauseous feeling some individuals experience (which is from consuming your entire daily value of zinc all at once). You can also break your multivitamin in half and take half with lunch and half with dinner to avoid nausea.
Talk to your healthcare provider to help figure out which multivitamin is right for you, as several specialty products exist on the market. Choose a multivitamin that is designed for your age, sex, and other factors (i.e. eye health). Consider basic multivitamins whose amounts of most or all vitamins and minerals do not go above the Daily Value (DV). Well-known national brands (Centrum, NatureMade, One A Day, and etc.) are always a safe bet. Multivitamins usually have low amounts of calcium and magnesium (because these nutrients are bulky), so some people might need to take one or both minerals separately (again this is something to discuss with your healthcare provider). Multivitamins for seniors usually provide more calcium and vitamins D and B12 and less iron than multivitamins for younger adults.
Remember to be cautious about taking a multivitamin with other foods that may contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals (e.g. protein bars, powders, cereals, meal replacements, and etc.) so that you aren’t getting too much of any vitamin or mineral.