Food is the best source of most nutrients, but a multivitamin can help provide what your diet doesn’t. Find out what to look for in a daily multivitamin.
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Our bodies need many different vitamins and minerals to function properly.
The good news is that we can get most of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need daily by choosing the right foods and eating a wide variety of them.
Still, many people take a multivitamin daily as an insurance policy — just to be sure they are getting all the vitamins and minerals that their bodies require.
“A multivitamin is a good idea for the trace elements,” says Donald Novey, MD, an integrative medicine physician with the Advocate Medical Group in Park Ridge, Ill.
“You want a multivitamin for all those little things at the bottom of the ingredients list. The ones at the top of the list are familiar and the ones we can’t avoid if we’re eating enriched foods. It’s the trace elements at the bottom that are the ones often missing.”
Trace elements include chromium, folic acid, potassium, iron, manganese, selenium, and zinc.
Daily Vitamin: Our Needs Change With Age
Vitamin supplements can be particularly important during certain stages of our lives, Dr. Novey says. For example, women in their childbearing years can benefit from folic acid, which decreases the risk of some birth defects. A pregnant woman needs a multivitamin, starting in the first trimester, to ensure that the baby receives proper nutrition. Active and older women can benefit from increased calcium, which can help prevent bone loss and fractures. Vegetarians also can benefit from taking extra calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B12 and D.
Does it matter what time of day you take a multivitamin? Not really, says Stephen Bickston, MD, AGAF, professor of internal medicine and director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Center in Richmond. However, he says, some people find it helpful to take vitamins at the same time every day. If it becomes part of their routine, they are less likely to forget. Also, he says, some people feel that if they take their vitamin with food, it is less likely to cause stomach upset. “I often recommend that people take a chewable vitamin,” Dr. Bickston says, “because they seem to be well tolerated, even in people who have serious digestive conditions, which is what I deal with in my practice.”
Daily Vitamin: Tips for Shopping for the Right Multivitamin
Do you need to buy brand name vitamins? Novey says vitamins are like any other consumer product: “You get what you pay for.” He suggests shopping for vitamins in health food or natural food stores. Read the label and make sure its expiration date is at least a few months away. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s advice on how much to take — or the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) — is often written as “% DV” for percentage of daily value on the label. However, be careful because the DVs on the label may not take into consideration the different requirements for age and gender as RDAs do.
Multivitamins can be beneficial, but doctors warn not to be suckered by “mega” vitamins. The amount of vitamins in a standard multi is generally what you need for health benefits. Rarely do people need more than the RDA of any vitamin. When it comes to vitamins, the too-much-of-a-good-thing rule can apply, Bickston says.
Daily Vitamin: Ensuring Good Health
Clearly, eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats and poultry, and low-fat dairy products is the best way to get your daily dose of vitamins and nutrients to keep your body functioning properly and to ward off illnesses. But taking a multivitamin daily is a good backup plan, and an easy way to fill in any gaps in your diet.