Why in the World Are You Taking a Multivitamin?

The dietary supplement industry rakes in $30 billion every year. With dedicated retail stores such as GNC, entire aisles in pharmacies and supermarkets, and various online options, this is a big business. But will that multivitamin actually improve your health? The evidence is limited at best, and yet half of us take a pill.

The top 3 supplements by revenue are:

  1. Multivitamin
  2. Calcium
  3. Omega 3

A recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine explores the reasons for our seemingly illogical decision to spend $200 per person a year on supplements. Over 10,000 people answered questions on this matter between 2007-2010, and here are the results:

  • 45% hoped the supplements would improve their health
  • One third hoped they would maintain their health
  • 18% of men hoped to improve heart health and lower cholesterol
  • 36% of women specified bone health as their reason for calcium supplementation
  • Here’s the kicker – in only 1 out of 4 cases was a health professional involved in the decision to purchase a supplement.

Interestingly enough, there was a  high correlation between healthy lifestyle and supplementation.

The position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is that we get our nutrients from food, not pills. There is leeway for people with certain deficiencies as well as a general recommendation to get vitamin D for those of us who live in dark cold regions of the country, without too much sunlight in the winter.

Without getting into the debate on the efficacy or not of the pretty pills we buy, let’s think for a minute about the nomenclature – “supplements“. A supplement is something that may be added, not something that replaces real nutrients from whole foods. Eating nutrient poor fast food and snacks each day – and supplementing – will NOT make you healthier.

Multivitamins usually have 10-20 nutrients. But there are thousands of nutrients in each fruit or vegetable we eat that science has yet to fully understand. Not to mention how they all work together. Isolating a few of the nutrients while disregarding the others may be the reason that many of the promises on the supplement packaging never come true.

What to do at the supermarket:

Buy lots of fruits and vegetables. If you think they’re too expensive, consider the extra $$$ as money not spent on supplements, medications, and future doctors’ visits. You can buy frozen produce at lower prices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Fistukm Mayan Orgel

    Other things to consider are:
    1. Most multivitamin supplements on the market are synthetic and full of fillers

    2. Vitamins and other nutrients work together with other nutrients in appropriate ratios. Most multivitamins don’t take this into consideration.

    3. Most over-the-counter multivitamins as well as prescription vitamins, provide the inactive versions of vitamins. This can actually cause more bad than good once it is metabolized.

    4. Each person is different and therefore each of us require a unique nutrient profile. The appropriate nutrient supplementation (if necessary) should be considered on an individual basis. There is no single general multivitamin that will benefit everyone.

  • Cheryll R

    I have been taking multivitamins for a while, and I can’t tell if they do anything or not. I feel better when I’m taking them, but, it’s likely (at least in part) placebo effect. But to answer the headline question “why,” I would have to say it’s because I could never conceivably eat enough food to reach the RDA levels of each listed nutrient.

    I use a diet tracker (myFitnessPal) and I flop horribly short every day of Vitamins A, C, E, D, B, Calcium, Magnesium, Omegas, Potassium, etc… and I eat pretty well. I mean, not all-superfoods-all-the-time, but pretty responsible choices. Part of that might be that the database of foods to log aren’t fully complete in those areas, but when I enter a new food, I always fill those things out if they’re available on a label or website somewhere. How do you eat enough to reach optimal nutrient levels without gobbling 3,000 calories/day? So, one vitamin, and I’m all topped off. But now that I’ve been reading everywhere how isolated vitamins are a sham (and I buy that completely) I plan to stop buying them. So, what can I do instead? Just not pay attention to RDA’s?

    • Christa

      Get a sweet blender and enjoy a nutrient-packed smoothie every day! :) Use whole food supplements. I take a prenatal from NewChapter Organics. Standard Process is also excellent (literally has farms of organic produce that they make into supplements!), but it is only sold to health professionals for resale and Nordic Naturals makes fantastic omega 3s. The company is wildly committed in educating the health professionals with accounts about the purity of their product.

      • Cheryll R

        I used food-based vitamins when I was pregnant, I will see if they have a daily at the Whole Foods, or I guess, just always take prenatals, but a smoothie is hard to deal with for me – drinking 500 calories just sounds like no fun. So, the big question is – skip the useless vitamins, or fall short of all those nutrients? Which is the lesser evil?

  • Robin

    I know, I know… I always think I have to hedge my bets. Even though we eat a ton of fruits and vegetables. We’ve gone vegan for the most part. Well, my husband completely and I’m along for the ride. But now I feel I need to take B12 and Vitamin D. That doesn’t seem like such a natural diet to me if you have to supplement it.

  • Jason V

    Was a “health professional” involved in the decision to write this article?

  • mikes

    How about “breast is best”…. but don’t forget to supplement with Trivisol or polyvisol. Huh?

  • runninglady90

    I tell my clients that it’s an insurance policy. Of course you should get your nutrition from food….but in reality….is that possible every single day? No. So take a multi-vitamin….just in case.

  • Christa

    USDA’s own research has taught us, however, that the same fruits and veggies consumed 50 years ago were far superior to the fruits and veggies we eat today. Back then, we just ate from our own local gardens and food wasn’t picked weeks in advance so it could be shipped thousands of miles, all the while losing nutrient value or lacking due to immaturity. So I think supplements are necessary, BUT the big issue is the quality. While I strongly oppose govt input on deciding who makes good supplements (because they consistently can’t find their head from their behind), not all supplements are created equally. I would recommend searching out the studies talking about efficacy of whole food supplements–supplements made from actual fruits and vegetables. They work far better because the synergistic elements of that carrot or tomato work much better than isolate, lab-created ascorbic acid and other synthetic vitamins.

  • Heather

    Please stop taking multi-vitamins! If you are unsure that you are getting the recommended amount of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients from your WHOLE FOOD fruit and veggie intake, consider a plant based supplement like Juice Plus+ (which is backed by 29 excellent, double blind, placebo controlled, PRIMARY, published studies from research facilities like Yale, Wake Forrest, UCLA, University of NC, University of Florida, Nemours, and MD Anderson that show it does great stuff in the body)…it’s ONLY fruits and veggies that have been grown to amazing standards, juiced, dried at a low temperature, and then encapsulated or put in a soft chew…best part, Kids are FREE for 4 years with every adult that starts.
    Also, I’d recommend checking out the following studies on isolated, fragmented, man-made vitamins:
    -Iowa Women’s Health Study (2011)
    -SELECT study (2011)
    -Swedish Women’s Mamography Cohort Study (2010)
    -Women’s Health Initiative Study (2009)
    Each of these studies demonstrated a significant INCREASE in mortality rates and cancer risk…many of them were halted because of how dangerous they were for the participants. DANGEROUS…
    Why would we let scientists decide which of the thousands of phytonutrients in produce are right for our bodies when nature has already done the work? The fact is, we need between 9-13 servings of raw, vine ripened, fruits and veggies daily to keep our bodies healthy enough to fight what comes our way, and realistically, as a society we are not coming close to this number. My family takes Juice Plus+ to bridge the gap between what we should eat, and what we actually get on a daily basis. If you know of someone who shares Juice Plus+, call them TODAY….if not, check out this site: http://www.obriensjuiceplus.com It’s worth a look.

  • James Cooper

    Very well put.

  • malachite2

    Consumer Reports did a review of a variety of supplements (vitamins, etc) and the review included testing to determine how good the correlation was the supplement label’s claim of amount of the vitamin, etc. and the amount revealed/detected via testing in their labs. For some of the brands, there was poor correlation, or no truth in labeling. Sometimes alot less, sometimes more, sometimes the label was actually accurate.

  • Brooke W.

    I take 1 prenatal (even though I’m not pregnant), 1 for my Hair, Skin, and Nails (from being pregnant twice) and 2 pure raspberry ketone supplements, every day. Still try to eat the best i can. And make sure my pills are organic. So far, they are helping in the areas i need help with. Good luck everyone!!!!!!

  • Joan

    Cyndi Lauper was interviewed by Dr. Oz on CNN last nite and what she described needing is answered by Fooducate. Hemi, get in touch with her!

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate


  • http://twitter.com/MyHealthyOutlet My Healthy Outlet

    We have to make the difference between synthetic nutrients (like multivitamins) and natural superfoods supplements that comes from fruits, herbs and vegetables. Multivitamins are man made and artificial and our body will flush most of it because it doesn’t recognize it. Since we don’t have access to a lot of superfoods which is a popular term in the health food industry. It refers to foods that are low in calories and high in nutrients, they contain large doses of antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals.
    Since the magic health pill has yet to be invented, superfoods are the body’s best bet because they supplement your body with natural nutrients that is absorbed fully.
    Nowadays, due to bad management and abuse of the soil, food is depleted of nutrients we need for basic health needs. That’s why it is really important to consume raw organic food in supplements to balance health regimen, repair and rebuild the body by boosting the protective immune system.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mordechai.welt Mordechai Welt

    I’ve explored what the natural food health gurus have to say about this issue.
    While T. Collin Campbell, author of The China Study dismisses the need for supplementation, other respected authorities, like Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat To Live, does recommond high quality vitamins in certain instances.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ken.mcdunn Ken McDunn

    I find any fatty, salty, sweet food taken with cheap beer and a multivit to be quite healthful. During the work week I ingest plenty of Ensure and McDonald’s fries with my multitab and a healthy dose of bacon w/cheese to supplement my Snickers and lard shake. This is always paired with my black cat hair and sweat of the monster’s balls tea. It really gets my gonads a turning. My “cold insides” (as someone termed them) are warmed all over with just a little carbon monoxide and (I know, it’s decadent) a trout sherbert twist. Srumdidliumptious. My fat falls away.
    Go away fast food–shoo! HeHeHe! :P

  • go blue

    I agree with the camp of, I eat whole organic food, especially vegetables as much as I can. Some days I miss the mark, so I supplement with whole food vitamins and vitamin D 5x’s a week. I dabbled with cq10 off;/on, other than that, no other pill supplements. I have to say when I get stressed and do not get enough sleep, I have caught colds, but my recovery back to normal is quick, I just sleep/eat & tea. I have not gotten the flu and do not get flu shots. So I have learned how stress/sleep does get the immune system down no matter how much I eat well and take vitamins.

  • Christina R

    I used to take a daily multivitamin everyday for almost a year. Now I don’t take them anymore and I feel no different from when I did take them. I think it is a lot smarter and cheaper as the article shows to just buy more fruits and vegetables. Sometimes I go to my local farm market because their produce is cheaper and tastes better! I personally always feel more energized when I eat more veggies and fruits so I don’t mind it at all! If you meet or even exceed your daily recommendations of fruits and veggies there is no need to have to take a multivitamin supplement.