People often ask, “should I take a multivitamin?” and after a semester of Nutrition Science, I can finally answer this question a bit more thoroughly than before, but my response remains somewhat vague: Sorta. Why not? Can’t hurt.
Our bodies require a whole pile vitamins and minerals to be present in our diets. If any of these are missing in an extreme way, something negative will happen, and that negative thing can usually be reversed if the nutrient is added to the diet. Yes, our bodies can operate with low levels of some of these vitamins and minerals, but in order for it to really thrive, it needs all this stuff.
Let’s see if I can still list them all off:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin C
- Pantothenic Acid
- Vitamin B-6
- Vitamin B-12
I admit that I had to go back to old notes to get all of those.
Not all of these vitamins & minerals are in multivitamins, but most of them are. The ones that we need hardly any of (like iodine, for example) easily find their way into the diet (with iodine, it’s thanks to the required iodization of table salt).
Many “healthy” foods contain a ton of these vitamins and minerals (the name of Pantothenic Acid, for example, is derived from “pantothen,” greek for “from everywhere). Once food processing was determined to be leading to many nutrient deficiencies, fortification and enrichment laws (especially for processed grains) ensured that food items that “should” contain vitamins and minerals (i.e. unprocessed cereals and breads) do contain them. So there are a lot of vitamins and minerals in the foods that we eat, even the processed ones (and of course it’s best to get vitamins and minerals from foods that naturally contain them). But how easy is it to meet our needs with foods alone? It’s sort of a pain in the neck, but it is possible.
This daily meal plan meets all of the vitamin and mineral requirements for a pre-menopausal woman (well, at least for the more major vitamins and minerals that the diet tracking software likes…!). Vitamin and mineral needs are slightly different for younger and older people, and for men and women. Of course they’re also different for pregnant or breast feeding women, as well.
Breakfast: 1 cup shredded wheat, 1 cup skim milk, 1 banana
Lunch: Baby Spinach salad with lentils, quinoa, mushrooms, red pepper, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
Dinner: Lean grass fed beef, broccoli, sweet potato
Snacks: Apple, skim milk, almonds
That looks like a normal, easy, healthy day, right? Well yes. But replace almonds with yogurt or sunflower seeds or a granola bar as a snack, and you’re low in vitamin E for the day. Replace the grass fed beef with chicken, and you’re low in iron. Replace the lentils with canned tuna and you’re low in folate. Don’t drink the milk, and you’re low in calcium and even lower in vitamin D. Etcetera, etcetera. There are many healthy adjustments that can be made to that day of food to lead to inadequate vitamin and mineral intake.
I lied, actually– that day of food does not have enough vitamin D–it only meets 40% of my needs. As I wrote in a previous post, it’s very hard to get the needed vitamin D through food alone. It also doesn’t meet my “needs” for sodium, but it’s not necessary to meet the recommended amount of sodium — the body NEEDS about 200mg a day, and the recommendation is set at 1500mg, mostly to encourage the limitation of added salt. This diet includes 580 mg of sodium, all occurring naturally in those foods.
So yes — it absolutely 100% is possible to get all of the necessary vitamins and minerals from food alone. It is not necessary to take a multivitamin. HOWEVER, it’s hard. I don’t want to be thinking about whether or not my selenium intake each day is sufficient.
I recommend that people do take multi-vitamins. Toxicity for these vitamins and minerals is only reached with excessive intake AND excessive supplementation, and the body has ways to regulate the amount of vitamins and minerals that may be consumed in excess. I generally take my vitamin every other day, in order to rebel. I suspect that is fine — I do get a lot of these vitamins & minerals through my diet, but by supplementing every once in a while, I ensure that my body has everything it needs to flourish.
I believe that one multivitamin a day can help you more than it will harm you. I recommend that you find one with no more than 100% of your daily needs for each nutrient, with the exception of Vitamin D and anything else that your doctor recommends.
I am planning to eventually go into more detail about some of these vitamins and minerals, and if there are any in particular that you would like to know more about, please let me know.