Should You Be Taking A Multivitamin?
By Charlotte Foster BSc (Hons), MSc, RD
What Are Multivitamins?
I’m sure we all know the basic concept of a multivitamin pill, as it’s pretty likely you have taken them before. Put simply, multivitamins are just supplements that contain different vitamins, minerals and sometimes other ingredients such as green tea or cranberry extract. Given that there are no regulated standards for what constitutes a multivitamin, their nutrient composition can vary massively by brand. Most of these pills are taken once or twice a day, and are available in the form of tablets, capsules, gummies, powders and liquids. Nowadays, you can really buy a multivitamin anywhere, even in very high doses.
Can vitamin pills cover for a bad diet?
This is a really common misconception, as multivitamins are not capable of compensating for a bad diet! There is so much more to your diet than vitamins – think of fibre, protein, prebiotics and healthy fats… You can’t get these through a vitamin pill, yet they are essential for a healthy gut. In my view, most healthy people can easily get all the vitamins and minerals they need through eating a balanced diet, and this is much more likely to ensure good health in the long run!
Have you heard of hypervitaminosis?
We live in a society where we can learn so much from social media and the internet. However, the problem with this is taking advice from people who aren’t medical professionals! When you read one article that tells you to take this multivitamin for beautiful skin, that multivitamin for your immune system and that OTHER multivitamin for gut health, you end up mixing quite the concoction of vitamin pills! Unlike medicine, multivitamins do not list side effects, recommended doses and interactions with other pills, so it is easy to end up taking too many.
Hypervitaminosis is a condition that occurs when a person has too much of a particular vitamin in their body. This can happen if you have too high of a dose or take too many different multivitamins. This is known to often occur with vitamin A, and sometimes vitamin D. It is worth knowing that we practically never see cases of hypervitaminosis from diet alone, and this is almost exclusively caused by excessive amounts of supplements! Unfortunately, it can cause some really nasty symptoms such as vision problems, skin problems and bone pain – so it’s really best to avoid this!
When should you take a supplement?
Whilst I don’t believe that you need to waste money on multivitamins if you are healthy and eating a balanced diet, there are several instances where I recommend you take a supplement. The Department of Health and Social Care recommends certain supplements for some groups of people who are at risk of deficiency.For example, if you are anaemic, you will benefit from taking an iron supplement due to your deficiency. Equally, there is evidence to suggest that vegans and vegetarians are often lacking in certain nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D (due to the absence of animal products in their diet), so will also benefit from supplementing these nutrients. There are also other cases such as very low-calorie diets that could benefit from vitamin/mineral supplementation (however you should always consult with a medical professional if this is the case for you).
The one vitamin pill I do recommend for everyone to take is vitamin D! Everyone during the winter months should take a supplement. Your body cannot produce enough vitamin D due to lack of sunlight. In the UK it is recommended that all people over the age of 1 take 10 micrograms / 400 IU of vitamin D. As vitamin D is fat-soluble, it is best to take your supplement with meals or a source of fat to increase absorption. It is worth noting that in many countries, 10 micrograms/400iu s is considered too low for adults with the upper limit being 10x that for adults. It is worth chatting to a Dietitian or your GP for more guidance about doses if you feel you need more.
What is my view?
In my opinion, supplements should be taken to correct a deficiency. Whilst they can be essential for some people, if you are eating a healthy diet with no underlying conditions, managing foods from all the food groups then it is unlikely that you need to be taking a multivitamin (except vitamin D). If you are taking vitamin and mineral pills, then make sure you don’t exceed the recommended nutrient intakes (RNIs). High end vitamin and mineral pills can end up costing nearly £30 a month and will most likely contain exactly the same as an own brand multivitamin – so read the labels and don’t fall for marketing ploys. Another thing to think about is how different vitamins are metabolised. The fat soluble vitamins (vitamins A,D,E & K) are stored in the liver whilst vitamins B & C are water soluble which means that the body cannot store them and will excrete them out in your wee! So with certain vitamins (B vitamins and vitamin C) if had in high doses, you are basically paying for expensive urine!
Not forgetting that there are exceptions such as anaemia, vegan diets and low-calorie diets which do require supplementation! If this is the case for you, it is important to consult with a dietitian to make sure you are getting a balanced diet full of all the nutrients you need!