How many of you are taking a multivitamin or are wondering whether you should be taking one?
Especially as vegetarians, many of us wonder whether we’re getting all of the vitamins and nutrients we need for our bodies to function optimally, and reaching for a multivitamin can seem like an easy fix. Indeed, when surveyed the top two reasons that people give for taking a multivitamin are either for filling a nutritional gap or to help optimize their health.
Most people who are eating a well-balanced healthy diet likely get adequate amount of vitamins and minerals from their food. This includes fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which we store and therefore don’t need to eat a constant supply of, water-soluble vitamins such as the B vitamins and vitamin C, which we don’t store and therefore need to top up more frequently, and minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium.
The benefit of getting these vitamins and minerals from whole foods as opposed to supplements is that mother nature is pretty darn smart. You tend to find fat soluble vitamins in fatty foods, which means you’ll readily absorb them. Vitamins and minerals are often packaged synergistically together in whole foods in such a way that their absorption of and use by our bodies are optimized.
Still, when it comes to those who eat a vegetarian diet, and especially vegans who do not eat any animal products, there may be a risk of dietary deficiency. Vegetarians are often lacking in vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium, the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, and choline.
Note that not everyone who eats a vegetarian diet will be lacking all or even any of these vitamins and minerals! It totally depends on diet, genetics (ability to absorb or synthesize certain nutrients) and other lifestyle factors.
So, is a multivitamin the key to preventing nutrient deficiencies, or do they provide a false sense of security?
The efficacy of multivitamins has been studied in a number of large, well-designed, double-blind trials, where participants are given either a vitamin supplement to take each day, or an identical-looking placebo pill.
One such study, which followed participants over a 12-year period, found that supplementation with a daily multivitamin had no impact on the risk of heart attack, stroke, or overall morbidity (risk of death). A similar study found that multivitamin use vs. placebo had no cognitive effects, measured by the incidence of Alzheimer’s and memory loss. And a systematic review that compiled data from 26 studies found limited evidence to support the use of multivitamins to prevent either cancer or cardiovascular disease.
But, does that mean that taking a multivitamin is bad for you?
While there is little evidence to suggest that they’re beneficial, there’s also very little evidence showing that multivitamins do any harm. One study did show that in older women vitamin use – and in particular iron supplements – may be associated with increased risk of death. Overall, though, and for the general population, they posed no risk.
The problem with vitamins, and in particular with multivitamins where producers are attempting to pack a lot of stuff into a little capsule, is that the quality of the synthetic vitamins found in supplements doesn’t even come close to matching the quality of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals found in food. And as previously mentioned, our bodies are particularly adept at absorbing vitamins from food sources, especially since they tend to come packaged with other elements that help us use them most effectively.
But back to the question of vegetarians – if you know you lack certain vitamins and minerals in your diet, such those listed above, my recommendation is that you speak to your health care provider about testing your levels.
If you don’t eat eggs, for example, you may need to supplement for important nutrients such as choline, DHA, and B12. But the point here is to pinpoint what nutrients your diet may be lacking and go for high-quality single supplements, rather than throwing a multivitamin into the mix and hoping for the best.
Using an online tool such as Chronometer to track your diet for a period of time can be useful, as this not only tracks macronutrients such as calories, fat, and protein, but also does a good job of tracking micronutrients. You may think you’re eating a fairly balanced diet only to discover that you’re actually lacking an important vitamin or mineral, and then can take the decision to either adjust your diet or opt for a supplement.
So, are multivitamins helpful for vegetarians? Perhaps. But in general you’d be better off in investing in a good diet and careful, specific supplementation where necessary.
Photos by Ana Stanciu4