Nature knows what she's doing, nutrition-wise. In each juicy orange, every tender leaf of spinach, and all the other foods she makes, you get a bundle of nutrients that help your body do its work. So, yes, fresh food is the first-choice source of vitamins and minerals. The trouble is, you need a lot of food.
"To achieve the optimal levels of vitamins and minerals, you'd have to eat at least 2,000 calories a day," says Janis Jibrin, RD, a dietitian in Washington, D.C., and none of those cals could be the empty kind. "If breakfast and lunch aren't nutritionally on point, think of how much produce and protein you'd have to down at dinner to make up for it," she says. The sheer amount of chewing could exhaust you!
That's where multivitamins come in. They're a great way to cover your bases if, like most Americans, you aren't eating a perfect diet every day. Vitamins won't instantly give you superhero energy or immunity, but they can help you meet the basics for your body to perform the way it wants to.
So now the question is, which one should you take? Before you set foot in the mile-long supplement aisle, use this guide to zero in on the product that's made for you. No second-guessing, no overspending. Just the right pick, so you can get on with your good life.
Which Vitamins and Minerals Should Be In a Multi?
The typical multivitamin contains around 10 vitamins and 10 minerals, and you want to take home one that has about 100 percent of the daily value (DV) of most of them.
"Since there's no regulatory definition of what needs to be in a multi, looking at percentage of daily value is the best way to tell if it's providing what you need," says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, a senior scientist at the Antioxidants Research Laboratory and a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
Americans tend to get less than the recommended amounts of the nutrients listed below, so it's especially important to aim for the DV of those.
Make Sure Your Multi Contains:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6 - especially if you're taking oral contraceptives, which can lower levels of this vitamin.
- Vitamin B12 - especially if you're over 50, you don't eat meat, fish, or eggs, or you take a heavy-duty stomach acid reducer like Nexium or Prilosec.
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Folic acid - especially if you're of childbearing age; it's been shown to prevent birth defects when taken early in pregnancy.
- Calcium - because many multis don't contain a whole day's worth, so compare a few and opt for whichever is highest.
- Iodine - especially if you are pregnant or trying; deficiency may impair fetal development.
Do Vitamins With Whole-Food Ingredients Beat Those With Synthetic Ones?
It's a tie. In general, your body isn't picky about whether vitamins are derived from nature or made in a lab, says Blumberg. In some cases, research has found a slight edge — a natural form of vitamin E and a synthetic form of vitamin B12 may be easier to absorb, for instance. But those differences aren't great enough for you to give up a multi you like and search high and low for something else.
If One Multi a Day Is Good, Are Two Better?
No, because going way over the DV of certain vitamins could potentially hurt you. You don't have to worry about the water-soluble kind (B and C) — your body quickly absorbs what it needs of these and you just eliminate the excess, so you simply end up with very expensive pee. But you can overdo fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), says JoAnn Manson, MD, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. They're stored in the liver and fat cells and are used by your body more slowly. "If you take too many fat-soluble vitamins, there can be real health risks," says Manson. One multi, no more, will keep you at safe levels.
Does a Higher Price Mean a Better Product?
Not necessarily. "Vitamins and minerals are generally inexpensive ingredients," says Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com, an independent supplement and wellness product testing company. "When you see the price creeping up, that usually means there are extra and often unnecessary bells and whistles, like herbal blends." So look at the labels first to zoom in on the products that contain all the nutrients you want. Then buy the cheapest one of the bunch.
Is It OK to Buy a Giant-Size Bottle, Or Do Vitamins Expire?
Your multi should be good for about two years after it's made if you store it away from heat, light, and humidity, says Cooperman. After that, the concentrations of vitamins might fall below what it says on the label. The tricky part? There's no law saying companies have to list the date of manufacture or expiration, so your bottle could have spent a long time in storage somewhere. Just buy what you'll use in the next six months.
Can You and Your Guy Take the Same Multivitamin?
Are you both under age 50? Then it's fine to share a non-gender-specific vitamin. It's true that up to age 50, you need extra iron and he doesn't, says Lauri Wright, PhD, RDN, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida. "But a basic adult multi along with a healthy, varied diet should cover your iron needs."
Once you pass age 50, it's smart to take the age- and gender-appropriate option. Most 50+ formulations have extra B6 (your requirements go up) and B12 (you absorb less as you get older). If you can find one with additional vitamin D and calcium, go for it, because you also need more of those as the years add up. Postmenopausal women can down less iron than they used to, and products for 50+ females adjust for that.
Should You Take a Special-Formula Pill, Like Those for Heart Health or Energy?
It's not a must. Most often, the doses of extra ingredients aren't enough to make a dent in your risk for certain diseases, says Blumberg. It's better to take a basic multi and separately add nutrients you need more of (for instance, if you're at risk for macular degeneration, you might want a vision supplement with lutein, zeaxanthin, and zinc). Another concern with special-formula multis: You could get more than you bargained for. One "energy formula" delivers 90 mg of caffeine — almost what you get in an 8-ounce coffee.
Gummies — Only for Kids? And What About Liquids, Powders, and Chewables?
Your body doesn't really care what form the vitamins are in, so choose the type you'll want to take. Liquids, powders, and chews can definitely be easier to swallow. You're fine taking gummies as long as they're made for adults; just be aware that they often contain fewer vitamins than other kinds of multis. "It's easier to put certain ingredients in a pill form than in a chewable," says Cooperman. If you go for a fun format, check labels to be sure you're OK with the trade-offs.
When You Might Need More Than a Multi
If you don't eat dairy, a calcium supplement could be in order. Yes, leafy greens contain this mineral, but you'd have to eat about 11 cups of cooked kale to get the recommended 1,000 mg (and it's 1,200 for women 51+). There's usually not very much in multis — it can't always be jammed in there without becoming so large that only a T. rex could swallow it. A 500 or 600 mg supplement that you take twice a day should top you up.
When a Multi's a No-No
Keep this in mind: Certain vitamins can interact with prescription meds. If you're taking any Rx's, be sure to talk to your doc before swallowing something new. Yes, even a friendly-looking chewable.
The Best Time to Take Your Multi
Have it with a meal. Certain nutrients are absorbed better when there's food in your system. For many people, pairing a vitamin with breakfast makes it easy to remember. Taking extra calcium? It may compete with other minerals to be absorbed, so wait until your next meal for that one.
A Perfect Day of Nutrients Means Working in All These Foods:
- 1½ avocados
- 4 Tbsp almonds
- 1½ cups strawberries
- 1 cup cooked bulgur wheat
- 1 large orange
- 1 large sweet potato
- 3½ cups milk
- 5 cups raw spinach
- 1⅓ cups cooked oatmeal
- 3 oz canned light tuna
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 4 oz dark meat turkey
- ¾ cup kidney beans
- 1 slice 100 percent whole wheat bread
- 2 Tbsp chopped parsley
- 3 tsp olive oil
- 1 tsp canola oil
Note: Always ask a health care professional about your specific medical needs. This information is not individual medical advice and may not be appropriate for you.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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