Multivitamins, the most popular nutritional supplement in the world, and until recently seen by many as the pinnacle of healthy living. However, in recent years something of a scientific backlash has occurred, with many experts labeling them useless, or even dangerous to your health. This opinion is by no means universally accepted, and the debate still rages. In this article, we will attempt to answer the question “multivitamins are they worth your money?”.
A Brief History of Multivitamins
As astonishing as it may sound, the term vitamin (or “vital amine” as it was first named) was first used in 1912 . That means that man invented the airplane before knowing what a vitamin was! Almost as soon as the vitamin was discovered the supplement industry began selling vitamin products. An article in amazingwellnessmag.com provides a fantastic quote from The Journal of the American Medical Association:
“The claims set forth on the labels of the medicinal values of these preparations are extravagant and misleading” .
As you can see, throughout history there has been a back and forth between supplement companies and scientific journals. With the supplement industry pushing the belief that multivitamins provide many health benefits while the scientific community try to reel them in.
No matter how scathing early scientific journal articles were about the first vitamin products, by the 1940s the production of multivitamins was at an all-time high. Finally, science was beginning to appreciate the benefits that multivitamins could provide. Particularly after World War II, when many countries were dealing with food shortages.
By the 1970s the supplement industry had taken things too far again, using vitamins and minerals to try and ward off all illnesses and diseases. To this day, many people still believe that a multivitamin will stop them from catching a cold or getting cancer.
In the modern world, the multivitamin is still massively popular with the general public, and the supplement market is bigger than ever. In 2018 the global supplement market was worth $115.06 billion and is expected to grow by a further 7.8% over the next seven years .
But after several studies claimed that multivitamins were a waste of time and money there has been a bit of a backlash. Could the multivitamin go out of fashion? And are these claims that it is entirely without merit accurate? This article will attempt to find out.
Why do People Take Multivitamins?
Before critically analyzing multivitamins, it might be interesting to explore why people take multivitamins in the first place. The main reason is obvious, to improve their health. But if you will allow us to dig a little deeper (and leave the safe world of facts for opinion) we can try to explain what drives people to spend their money on multivitamins.
The truth is that most people do care about their health, but it has to take a backseat to many other important considerations. Earning money, looking after your family, maintaining a social circle, walking the dog, and doing things that you enjoy. Cooking an organic meal that contains 8 different locally sourced vegetables is the sort of thing that only rich people and Instagram influencers have time for (just kidding).
Taking a multivitamin is an easy habit to form, after the first 20 days or so it becomes second nature. The cost per serving is very reasonable, and it’s an easy win. So much of fitness and nutrition offers little reward for a lot of effort, in comparison, the multivitamin requires almost zero effort and may provide many benefits.
It feels good to be taking a positive step each day, and it can help assuage the guilt about other aspects of your diet or physical fitness. That line is not meant to be judgmental or passive-aggressive, we all feel this (except the aforementioned rich and Instagram celebs). “I may not be as lean as I would like but at least I’m getting my vitamins”.
The idea that a little pill can offer improved vitality, immunity from illness, and maybe a couple extra years of life are all factors. But deep down it is that feeling that you are taking a positive step each day. That’s our theory at least, maybe we’re completely wrong!
What are the Benefits of Multivitamins?
There are many benefits that are associated with multivitamins, the major question is whether those benefits are accurate or not. One of the problems with science is that it is very difficult to recreate real life in a lab. For example, if a group of scientists sat you down in a room and told you to “act naturally” while they wrote notes and whispered to each other you’d probably be feeling quite freaked out.
If you are looking at multivitamins scientifically you can say that they are made up of vitamins and minerals – these vitamins and minerals can improve your health in a number of ways. Analyzing the vitamins and minerals in a lab can show this to be true. However, when studies look at the effect of multivitamins on health the results do not tend to demonstrate this.
Multivitamins have been found to improve your immune system, help you think better (by improving cognition), and help you recover from exercise. Vitamin C can help protect your immune system, which may prevent certain eye diseases, and can protect against certain pre-natal issues experienced by pregnant women. However, does taking a multivitamin provide these benefits if you already consume enough vitamin c through your diet? No.
Vitamin B complexes can improve brain function, eyesight, cell health, and digestion, but again, are multivitamins the best source of vitamin B? If you look specifically at each vitamin and mineral contained within a multivitamin you can see many associated benefits. But you must remember that almost all vitamins and minerals can be easily found through diet, and several studies have failed to show that multivitamin use improves health.
What do multivitamins contain?
Most multivitamin supplements tend to vary their formula slightly, partly so that they can stay separate from a crowded market, and partly so that they can specify whether they are catering to men, women, the young, the old, etc …
However, the following are the most commonly used ingredients in a multivitamin supplement:
Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12
As you can see, there are a lot of ingredients contained within a multivitamin supplement, and it covers a large percentage of vitamins and minerals.
Multivitamins: The Backlash
In 2009 a cohort study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine . It analyzed data from 161,808 women who had participated in the Women’s Health Initiative Clinical Trials between 1993-1998 and 2005. The goal of the study was to assess whether multivitamins were effective at reducing the risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. While 41.5% of the women had taken multivitamins continually, the study found no indication that this had reduced their risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease.
What this study (and several subsequent studies) demonstrates is that multivitamin use has no bearing on overall health. Not a significant one at least. Now, people who believe in multivitamin use will dispute these results, will argue that the study was badly designed or that it wasn’t long enough, etc … But as of right now, we have no evidence that multivitamins can help you live longer.
Which was the main reason why people took them.
Media reports have swung wildly about multivitamins and similar supplements such as omega 3, at first, they described them as essential, and then when new evidence came out the media turned on multivitamins sharpish! Not that this has particularly affected sales though, with the multivitamin industry growing at a fast rate over the years.
The idea that a little pill can help you beat cancer or avoid a heart attack is a difficult thing to break. Also, there does not appear to be any harm associated with taking them, so people may be of the opinion that the theoretical benefits and low cost make multivitamins a safe investment, even if they don’t work. But is there an unspoken downside to taking multivitamins?
Could multivitamins be a bad influence on your diet?
This theory may seem a little bit wild, but it is certainly worth exploring. Could multivitamin use actually worsen your health? This theory is increasingly being looked at. The idea is this:
If you are taking a multivitamin each day, it is giving you a false sense of security. You have less need to eat fruit or vegetables because you are getting the vitamins and minerals from your daily multivitamin.
Obviously, this isn’t going to apply to everyone. But you can bet that a large number of people are definitely papering over the cracks of their bad diet with a daily multivitamin tablet. No matter what side of the debate a nutritionist is on, they will absolutely agree that vitamins and minerals found in natural foods (particularly fruit and veg) will always trump vitamins and minerals from a pill.
This means that the use of a multivitamin may actually lead to people eating less fruit and vegetables and eating more junk food because they believe they are doing what is required of them. Of course, the reverse is also true. If somebody is avoiding fruit and vegetables and overindulging in junk food, then taking a multivitamin may be necessary.
Multivitamins and Special Populations
While the average man or woman may not see much benefit from taking a multivitamin, there are certain populations who would indeed benefit. These populations tend to have an incomplete diet. For example, vegetarians and vegans have otherwise healthy diets, but they can be low in certain vitamins and minerals.
Calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 are mostly found in meat and animal products, with very little available in a plant-based diet. Creatine monohydrate is not a mineral or vitamin, but it is also frequently absent from vegan diets. As such, vegans would benefit from a multivitamin because it would help to mask the lack of these minerals and vitamins. Of course, taking the individual minerals and vitamins as supplements would probably be more effective.
The elderly and infirm are also susceptible to malnutrition, partly due to a loss of appetite, and partly due to the body not being able to process nutrients in the same way. For example, studies have shown that as we age our body is not able to process leucine as effectively . This means that leucine supplementation may be beneficial for the elderly while being mostly ineffective for younger people. The same can be said for several vitamins and minerals.
People who suffer from obesity can also be in danger of malnutrition, which at first glance seems backward. Surely people who overeat are getting more nutrients than people who under eat? The problem is that many obese people tend to follow poor diets, eating a lot of foods that are nutritionally sparse. If you are eating a bag of spinach each day you are less likely to be obese (at least in theory). Obese people may also be suffering from other illnesses that can affect vitamin and mineral metabolism.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have people who under-eat, anorexics for example. People who suffer from bulimia are also likely to benefit from a multivitamin. Basically, any form of disordered eating can lead to malnutrition. Even people who exercise regularly can accidentally find themselves lacking certain vitamins and minerals.
People who follow the ketogenic diet for example, are following a diet that can yield great fat loss benefits and (arguably) can help improve cognitive function. However, the diet prioritizes dietary fats over protein and almost completely abolishes carbohydrates – which can lead to people missing out on certain vitamins and minerals. For people on a ketogenic diet, a multivitamin may be a good idea.
Even bodybuilders can suffer from malnutrition, particularly the old school types that follow the cut and bulk cycle. During a bulk, they may stick to the same meal day in day out (thanks to food prep). If you are eating chicken, rice, and broccoli four times a day with a protein shake you are going to miss out on several key nutrients. Similarly, during a cut cycle, you may end up cutting fruit out due to its high fructose content (not a good idea, but a common issue). Meaning your vitamin C levels may be below average.
In fact, people who exercise regularly may be more in need of multivitamins than the majority of the public. Let’s explore why.
Multivitamins and Athletes
If you stop and think about it, athletes probably have the best diet of anyone out there. They eat to improve their performance and to reduce recovery time between sessions. The term athlete is very broad, we’re talking about anyone who trains regularly and prioritizes diet and training over their social life. You may suck at every sport you turn your hand to, but if you are in the gym deadlifting three times per week, you’re an athlete.
So, if your diet is so good then why would you need multivitamins? Well, partly for the reasons explained above. Eating for performance or for aesthetics doesn’t automatically mean that you are eating the most nutritionally dense of diets. But there is something else.
When you exercise, you tend to burn through a lot of the vitamins and minerals that you consume. Iron is a good example of this, ordinarily, someone with a good diet would not need to supplement with iron (unless you are pregnant, menstruating, or a strict vegan) but athletes tend to use a lot of iron through training .
Iron is used to carry oxygen to your muscles while you exercise, participating in strenuous exercise can therefore deplete your iron stores. Sure, eating foods that are rich in iron is one way of avoiding iron deficiency, but what if you are a boxer and you are trying to make weight? The extra calories may push you over the limit. B-vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, and several other nutrients are also used during exercise or in the process of building stronger muscles, joints, or bones .
Women who lift heavy weights may need to increase their calcium and vitamin D intake as this will help them to build and maintain stronger bones (and avoid osteoporosis). With all this in mind, surely multivitamins are worth taking, right?
Diet is the new multivitamin
While certain populations and athletes who participate in extreme exercise may require the added vitamins and minerals a multivitamin provides, and special populations can also benefit from this, the average man or woman probably does not require a multivitamin. Or to put it another way, before purchasing a multivitamin they should consider a better approach.
Diet is the new multivitamin, in fact, diet is the original multivitamin. In developed nations, it has never been easier to get a varied source of fruit, vegetables, grains, and meat than it is right now. Wherever you live, no matter your circumstances you can find fresh (or frozen) vegetables year-round.
You have unlimited access to free recipes from every nation on earth, there are social media channels dedicated to showing you (for free) how to eat healthier and on any budget, if you’re rich you can literally pay people to prepare your meals for you and deliver them to your house. You can get healthy salads delivered from McDonalds to your door! What a time to be alive.
In short, stop using multivitamins as an excuse to eat poorly. If you are purchasing a multivitamin, then it should be after covering every other base. If you are eating as healthily as you can, and you still require a multivitamin (for any of the reasons previously mentioned) then go for it. But otherwise, look to your own eating habits first.
You may have heard of greens supplements; they have become very popular with supplement companies recently. The idea is that you buy a bag of powdered vegetables and fruit, mix it with water, and this will provide at least one of your five a day. Unlike multivitamins, greens powders are not designed to contain all of the vitamins and minerals you need, but they do provide quite a lot, and they are more natural. The ingredients are really fruit and veg that has been processed and dried.
This is a great way to top up a healthy diet and would be perfect for athletes. However, as with multivitamins they are not there to replace a healthy diet but to compliment it.
In terms of economic value, a multivitamin is probably the best bang for your buck you could ask for. Absolutely packed with vitamins and minerals that can help your body by preventing deficiencies. The question is whether you actually need to take them. Truth is, most people should be thinking about their diet first before looking at multivitamins. It is very easy to get your recommended daily allowance for most vitamins and minerals through diet alone.
Improving your diet will also help increase energy, reduce inflammation, it can help you build or preserve muscle mass, and it can also help with weight loss. Surprisingly, a well-planned out, healthy diet can actually work out cheaper than an unhealthy diet (though of course, this is not always the case).
One way to avoid deficiencies is to stop following fad diets. Zero carb diets, vegan diets (yes, if you are avoiding meat for moral reasons then you are welcome to continue), low-fat diets, even paleo diets all involve cutting out large parts of a healthy diet. This can lead to deficiencies, and the truth is that these diets are unnecessary.
Whatever your goal, it can be achieved without giving up any particular food or macronutrient. While a keto diet has its positives, you can gain these same benefits (cognitive, fat-loss, etc) without cutting out all carbs. While paleo diets are good for cutting out junk food, they are terrible for banning foods for no reason. Again, this will lead to deficiencies that can easily be avoided.
If you really want to follow these diets then you probably will require a multivitamin, but following a calorie-controlled, high-protein, a diet will get you all the benefits you want without causing any deficiencies. This is without a doubt the right approach, and there is no need for a multivitamin.
If you are training regularly, lifting weights, participating in sport, running marathons, etc … then a multivitamin may be a good idea. See if you can improve your diet first, but if you feel that your diet is near perfect and you’re still deficient, grab yourself a high-quality multivitamin.