Do You Really Need A Multivitamin?
Multivitamins have been around for ages. Most of us have a bottle of them somewhere in the house, usually in the dark corners of our medicine cabinets or kitchen windowsills, collecting dust. But multivitamins are big business – 76% of Americans take some sort of vitamin/mineral supplement, which is an all-time high for the category.
There are now companies like Ritual and Hum that have made vitamins trendy, with their ‘clean’ promises and on-staff RDs. Ritual even tells you where each of their ingredients is sourced, from Utah to Saskatchewan. Cool. And Kelly Ripa constantly in my social feeds selling Persona vitamins.
I doubt highly that we’re gonna have Kelly Ripa’s life if we start taking them. But let’s get to the real question: do you really need a multivitamin?
Multivitamins are sold with the idea that they’re ‘insurance’ to fill the gaps in your diet. That they’ll give you strong nails, gleaming hair, and lots of energy. It all sounds good, but do you really need to take a multi?
The answer is complicated. Some people, in particular those with chronic conditions such as kidney disease and alcoholism, probably do need multivitamins. Pregnant women need folic acid, and post-bariatric surgery patients and people with IBD need multivitamins.
If you’re on a restrictive diet, this amazing infographic from examine.com shows what your needs might be.
Common multivitamins contain a mixture of vitamins and minerals, sometimes with add-ins like lutein or omega-3s. And in case a normal basic multi is too boring for you, supplement companies are cashing in on the ‘personalized’ trend.
On one leading multi’s site, I select my gender, age group, and ‘goal’ – I chose ‘metabolism,’ knowing it would lead me down a woo-woo path. The recommendation that popped up was a women’s vitamin with “B vitamins to aid in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, plus key nutrients to help support your energy, immunity, and healthy appearance.”
Fair enough, but there’s one problem: B vitamin deficiencies to the extent that they might cause an interruption in the way a body metabolizes nutrients, are extremely rare. You just don’t have a lot of people walking around with a riboflavin deficiency, because our food is full of it and the other seven B vitamins (Thiamine, niacin, folic acid, panthotenic acid, biotin, B12, and B6).
The one exception to this is B12, for which vegans and the elderly in particular are at risk for deficiency. But for the rest of us, this is largely a non-issue. So yeah, thanks but no thanks.
B vitamins are water-soluble, so any excess we take in, gets peed out pretty much right away. As we say in the business, expensive pee.
Here’s one overarching points about multivitamins: if I have the money for a multi, I’m probably also eating a balanced, varied diet. I’m not deficient in B vitamins and have never been, yet I’m being told by this company to ‘feed my cells’ and help my metabolism with a vitamin that contains what I – and most of you – am already eating.
Let’s say I’m a B12 deficient vegan. This same supplement has 250% of my recommended B12, which I suppose is fine, but why wouldn’t I just take a B12 supplement instead of a bunch of stuff I don’t need?
Hard-to-find micronutrients, such as iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium, are often not found in multivitamins in amounts that approach the recommended intakes. That’s one of my biggest complaints about multis – that there’s a whole lot of stuff you don’t need, and a whole little of the stuff you might.
On another popular vitamin’s site, I get asked the same question about my gender, age, and ‘goal.’ This time, I choose ‘hair, skin, and nails,’ because naturally I want to see what the company recommends. Turns out, it’s a gummy vitamin high in biotin, otherwise known as vitamin B8. Biotin does legitimately have a part in the health of our hair, skin, and nails, and like the other B vitamins, it helps with the conversation of food into energy.
But the real story? Biotin requirements are very small, and this vitamin is readily available in the food we eat. Biotin deficiency is very rare, but when it occurs, it usually manifests in a skin rash, thinning hair, and mood disruption. In that situation, sure, taking biotin will help clear up your skin and make your hair thicker. But will it do those things for someone who’s not already deficient in biotin? Research says it won’t.
This is something I see a LOT: supplements being promoted for different symptoms and conditions, but the efficacy of treatment by supplement is low unless a person is actually deficient in that nutrient. In most cases, nothing happens if you take a vitamin or mineral supplement and you’re not deficient. You’re just wasting your time.
In other words, more isn’t better.
We live in a society where food is readily available, so even if your diet is halfway decent, there really isn’t a whole lot a multivitamin can do for you. And the research agrees:
Taking large doses of certain vitamins can actually be harmful. For example, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, are stored in the liver, where they can build up and become toxic if megadosed via supplements.
Vitamins can’t ever step into the place of food, even though they’re sometimes marketed in that way. And taking a multivitamin doesn’t mean that you can continue eating a suboptimal diet and get away with it.
Are personalized vitamins worth it?
I went over to the Persona website and filled out their assessment. It was really thorough, asking me if I have everything from mood disorders to sinusitis and what medications I’m taking.
It also asked if I have ‘adrenal fatigue symptoms’, saying that “adrenal fatigue is related to overworked adrenal glands producing too little hormones. This can cause tiredness, trouble sleeping, salt and sugar cravings, and digestive problems.”
Whatever. That’s such garbage.
I have a varied, healthy diet, so I indicated that on the form. I also said I’m interested in ‘overall wellness,’ energy, and immune support.
I tried to actually create a very innocuous profile because I wanted to see what they recommend for a person who has no real concerns or health issues.
One thing I did select was ‘bloating,’ simply to bait the algorithm.
An 11-pill regimen for $66 per 28-day supply. Yes, ELEVEN pills a day.
Normally, the price is $91 a month, but they’re offering a 30% discount on my first two orders. How generous.
Here’s what Persona recommended for me:
A multivitamin to help ‘fill the gaps’ in my diet, except I told them that I have no gaps.
The interesting thing about this particular multi is that it’s just like a regular drugstore multi with some add ons like lutein. It contains over 100% of the recommended intake of the very common B vitamins, but doesn’t even get close to the DRI for things like vitamin D, zinc, and selenium, even though they’re a lot harder to get in food. I guess they want to sell those in single nutrient pills, which, makes $en$e…for them, at least.
A probiotic of 25 billion CFU lactobacillus rhamnosus, which is fine. But honestly, the efficacy of probiotics taken ‘just because’ isn’t really a thing. Sure, if you have diarrhea, taking certain probiotics can help. But to shove a probiotic into my regimen for no clear reason is sort of ridiculous.
Because I live in Canada, I guess:
Vitamin D, 25 mcg, which equals 1000IU. This is a good dose.
For my ‘bloating’:
Peppermint, which does have some good research behind it for this purpose.
Digestive enzymes, which are generally useless for healthy people. Seriously.
Green Tea, which is simply a source of caffeine. In this case, 32 mg, which is only a fraction of the amount you’d get in a normal cup of coffee. So in other words, useless.
Cordyceps, an adaptogen mushroom that Persona claims can improve liver health and libido. The research, on the other hand, says nothing of the sort. In fact, most of the studies on cordyceps have been done on mice and in lab dishes, which isn’t exactly the same and being done of humans.
For immune support:
Garlic, for which the research is inconclusive in terms of how it affects immunity.
Quercitin, which may help with seasonal allergies
Vitamin C, which is so readily available in food, I’m not sure why they’d provide it in a supplement. Oh, right. $$$.
If I ordered Persona vitamins, I’d be spending money on a lot of pills that I didn’t need. The company – like many other supplement companies and the wellness industry in general – wants to convince me that I would benefit from taking all 11 pills every day. I’m sure a lot of people fall for this, but I don’t want you to be one of those people.
Many of the claims made about supplements are ahead of the science.
You feed your cells when you EAT FOOD. Don’t fall for idiotic marketing tactics.
Multivitamins, personalized or not, are mostly hype. Unless you have a particular condition that requires you to take one, don’t waste your money.
Is sugar addictive? Read my Learning Curve post about it here.