Should You Take a Multivitamin/Mineral Supplement?

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It’s no mystery that the typical American diet is less than perfect. Even people with the best intentions and the healthiest diets can fall short of meeting their nutritional needs. As a result, many have reached for dietary multivitamin/mineral (MVM) supplements to help fill nutritional gaps.

Should you? It sure could help (but there’s a caveat to that).

The American Diet Shortfall

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicates that Americans fall below the average requirements for vitamin A (45 percent deficiency), vitamin C (37 percent), vitamin D (93 percent), calcium (49 percent), and magnesium (55 percent).

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) note that 40 percent of Americans fail to meet the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR)—the average intake level estimated to meet the requirements of half of the healthy individuals—for many micronutrients.

Calcium, vitamin D, and potassium are identified as nutrients of public health concern because most Americans, including children, do not meet recommendations for these nutrients. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient of particular concern for people over age 50, as iron is for young kids, child-bearing women, and expectant mothers. 

In short, we’re falling short. And some people are at further risk for nutrient deficiencies, including:

  • People who avoid or restrict foods from any food group
  • Those on low-calorie diets; people who have reduced absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, or K
  • People on medications that interfere with the absorption and/or metabolism of certain micronutrients
  • People who avoid or restrict foods from any food group, such as enriched and fortified grain products
  • Women of childbearing age
  • Elderly individuals
  • Smokers
  • Those with a history of weight loss surgery

Multivitamins: Low-Cost Nutritional Insurance

Adopting healthful eating habits is ideal, but for some, change is no simple task.

The realities of the Western diet nutrient shortfalls and the limitations of even the best diets make supplementation an important option for long-term health.

Nutritional inadequacies are less common among those who take MVMs, and users tend to be more active and less likely to be smokers—factors associated with more nutritious diets and healthful lifestyles.

Taking a once daily MVM supplement is a safety net to help fill in nutritional gaps and combat nutritional deficiencies. It’s easy to remember, unlikely to cause any harm, and an affordable approach to providing “nutritional insurance.” MVMs may be especially beneficial for older people whose calories needs decrease along with appetite and absorption.

Food First

All that said, while MVMs can fill nutritional gaps, they do not take the place of a nutritious diet. They are called ‘supplements’ for good reason—their role is only to supplement one’s diet.

Food has always been the ideal way to get your nutrients—and, of course, it was the only way to do so before supplements came about. Nutrition experts and the most recent DGA continue to recommend a food-first approach. Food not only supplies essential nutrients, but also fiber and a host of other healthy compounds, such as phytochemicals and antioxidants, that interact with each other in ways that supplement ingredients cannot.

Improving nutritional quality of diets can promote health, wellness, and longevity. The DGA estimates that half of adults (117 million people) have one or more preventable chronic disease related to poor-quality eating patterns and physical inactivity. 

Further, a 2017 study estimated that unhealthy dietary habits caused 300,000 deaths from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes in the United States in 2012. Poor diet quality has been shown to increase all-cause mortality, as well as increase the risk of chronic disease.  

The Bottom Line

Ensuring adequate intake of vitamins and minerals—ideally via food, but perhaps also with the help of a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement—is critical to health maintenance and prevention of chronic disease, notably obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

These expert tips can help you make wise decisions when you’re in the supplement aisle:

  • Select the best multivitamin for your age and sex (labels can help guide you). 
  • Compare labels to find a multivitamin with the most nutrients, but without excess in their daily values. Keep in mind there is no standard for multivitamins, and many offer different nutrients in varying amounts. 
  • Chewable gummy supplements are not as complete as most pill form MVMs. In general, MVMs do not contain 100 percent of the daily value or the RDA of calcium, magnesium, or potassium, so you may need to take additional single supplements of these nutrients, depending on your dietary intake. 

And remember: Taking a MVM is not a magic bullet—you still need to be concerned about diet and health. MVMs are just a small part of a healthy lifestyle, not a substitute for one.

Sources:

Diet Quality Scores and Prediction of All-Cause, Cardiovascular and Cancer Mortality in a Pan-European Cohort Study. PlosOne. 2016;11(7):1-18.

Fulgoni VL 3rd, Keast DR, Bailey RL, Dwyer J. Foods, fortificants, and supplements: where do Americans get their nutrients? J Nutr. 2011;141(10):1847-1854.

Micha R, Peñalvo JL, Cudhea F, Imamura F, Rehm CD, Mozaffarian D. Association Between Dietary Factors and Mortality From Heart Disease, Stroke, and Type 2 Diabetes in the United States. JAMA. 2017;317(9):912-924. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020: Eighth Edition. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Published January 7, 2016

Wallace TC, McBurney M, Fulgoni VL 3rd. Multivitamin/mineral supplement contribution to micronutrient intakes in the United States, 2007-2010. J Am Coll Nutr. 2014;33(2):94-102.

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