Choosing a multivitamin: Everything you need to know
What are multivitamins?
Multivitamins are designed to be a “catch all” to fill in the nutritional holes in the typical diet. They are a combination of many common vitamins and minerals that our bodies need but that we may not be getting in adequate amounts from our food. Yes, a healthy diet is the best way to achieve our best health, but for many people modern life results in some holes in our diets. Those holes can prevent dangerous health risks including higher risk of some diseases.
Multivitamins essentially take the guesswork out of taking supplements. Because they almost universally contain at least the full daily recommended amount of the elements they contain, taking a daily multivitamin is a good way to cover our nutritional bases. This one-size-fits-all approach to nutritional supplements has sparked some controversy, however. Multivitamins contain sufficient levels of many elements for healthy people, but what about those who aren’t in good health? Multivitamins are a good place to start, but people with certain particular needs may benefit from taking isolated supplements in addition to a multivitamin. For example, smokers may need additional vitamin C and vegans may require more iron than a multivitamin can provide.
Finding the right fit
Not all multivitamins are created equal and it can be a challenge to determine which one is the best option. First, there are different formats for multivitamins, each with their pluses and minuses. They come in powder format inside a pull-apart capsule, inside a soft capsule, and as a chewable tablet. The format of the multivitamin is less important then the kind of multivitamin, which can vary greatly. Common types are:
Low potency vitamins
These vitamins, typically taken once daily, are a good way to cover the bases. They may not be the best choice for those who have a particular deficiency in one or more vitamins or minerals. These vitamins don’t provide sufficient levels of any one vitamin or mineral to make up for a deficiency and therefore the problem may persist even when taking these multivitamins.
How potency vitamins
High potency multivitamins contain higher concentrations of nutrients than their lower-potency counterparts. These formulations are typically designed to address particular conditions or segments of the population, such as those with cardiovascular issues or women of childbearing age. These vitamins are usually indicated to be taken more than once daily, to ensure an even distribution of these higher concentrations of vitamins in the body. A multivitamin designed for women, for example, may have higher levels of iron or calcium than a standard, one-size-fits-all multivitamin might contain.
These formulations operate on the assumption that a slow, gradual release of vitamins into the system is more beneficial than an all-at-once approach. This is the opinion of many healthcare professionals, but this opinion is met with disapproval by others who believe that the chemical agents used to cause the time-release reaction may be more outweigh the benefits that may be achieved from the timed release.
Many vitamin capsules are made from animal-based gelatin. This makes them inappropriate for a vegetarian or vegan diet. There are some products on the market, however, that are designed to fit into a vegetarian lifestyle. The important thing is to be an avid label reader to ensure you know what you are getting.
How to take a multivitamin
There are more things to consider when taking a multivitamin than one may think. The first thing to consider is when to take them. Generally, because multivitamins can contain iron and other things that may cause stomach upset, they should be taken with a meal. Doing so will not only lessen the chance of stomach upset but will also assist the body in absorbing some of the vitamins more effectively.
The next consideration is what formulation to take. As mentioned, multivitamins typically come in either capsules or tablets. Capsules are vulnerable to breaking down in heat and humidity, so those who live in a climate that experiences those conditions may want to opt for tablets instead. People who have difficulty in swallowing pills may want to opt for capsule form. These are typically smoother than tablets and, therefore, easier to swallow. This is particularly important when you consider that multivitamins can be rather large! Similarly, chewable tablets are a good option for those who can’t swallow pills. This is a good option for children, who may not yet be able to swallow pills effectively. Moreover, chewables appeal to children because they have added sweeteners that can make the taste more palatable to them.
That brings us to another issue: Are multivitamins recommended for children? There is much debate in this area, but one thing is universally agreed upon: A whole-food diet is the best approach to nutrition for children, just as it is for adults. Although that is a good goal for everyone to strive toward, the reality is that children are not always willing to eat a nutrient-rich diet. For those children whose diets are lacking, a multivitamin may be a good stop-gap, at least until their palates expand. Studies have shown that those children who do take multivitamins as a supplement to their diets showed increases in their IQ levels, but the particular nutrients that caused the increase could not effectively be isolated. Teaching our children to enjoy healthy food from a very young age – as soon as they start eating solids, preferably – will go a long way toward ensuring they get adequate nutrition from their diets, but in the event that their diets are not comprehensive enough a multivitamin can be a good option. Before giving your children a multivitamin, always consult a doctor.
Assessing your needs
People take multivitamins for a variety of reasons. Before taking vitamins it is important to assess what your goals are for doing so. Ask yourself:
Are you looking for a nutritional safety net? If you are looking to ensure that you receive all the nutrients you need even though you follow a healthy diet, a multivitamin is a good option.
Do you have particular nutritional needs? If you are looking to boost your intake of one or two things in particular, but otherwise eat a healthy diet, you may be better off simply taking those elements in supplement form. For example, if you have been diagnosed as anemic, you may want to take an iron supplement because it will give you a higher concentration of iron than what you’d find in a multivitamin. Similarly, if you are of childbearing age and want to reduce your chances of conceiving a child with a neural tube defect, taking a specially formulated prenatal vitamin or one designed for women’s health may be a better option.
Do you have any pre-existing conditions? If you have any medical conditions for which you take medication, you need to be very careful about taking multivitamins. Some of the components of a multivitamin may interact negatively with your medication and cause adverse reactions. If this is a problem for you, you can avoid the interaction by either choosing a multivitamin with a safer level of the troublesome component, or by taking vitamins individually, avoiding the negative interaction altogether.
Are multivitamins necessary at all?
Even if you follow a healthful diet that is rich in vitamin and minerals, you would likely benefit from a little boost from vitamin supplements. Not only do multivitamins ensure we are getting the vitamins necessary for a top-performing body, they also offer added benefits. Vitamins offer protection against certain diseases and conditions, many of which can be life threatening. Further, vitamins help to fortify the body against damage that can be caused by environmental impact (such as exposure to the sun and pollution), illness (which can weaken the immune system) and serious disease. Vitamins can even help slow down the effects of aging.
Whatever your nutritional needs, there is probably supplement (or combination of supplements) to meet your needs. The important thing is that you assess your needs honestly and frankly, do some research, and find the product that suits your needs the best. And as always, before incorporating any vitamin regime into your daily routine be sure to consult with your health care provider. This is especially important when considering giving vitamins to your children, as their smaller body mass requires a particular dosing schedule that can differ dramatically from that required by an adult. A doctor can determine whether supplements are indicated in your (or your child’s) situation and determine any possible drug interactions as well as recommending an appropriate dosing level.
Finally, it is important to note that as long as you are healthy and taking supplements in appropriate doses, the format doesn’t matter as much as taking them regularly. For example, as long as you are taking calcium supplements in the required dosages you will be receiving the benefits that calcium provides, regardless of whether it comes in a slow-release tablet, a chewable pill or a gel-filled capsule. The important thing is to remember to take them!