A daily multivitamin is a great nutrition insurance policy. Some extra vitamin D may add an extra health boost.
Trying to follow all the studies on vitamins and health can make your head swirl. But, when it’s all boiled down, the take–home message is actually pretty simple: A daily multivitamin, and maybe an extra vitamin D supplement, is a good way to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to be healthy. True, a healthy diet should provide nearly all the nutrients you need. But many people don’t eat the healthiest of diets. That’s why a multivitamin can help fill in the gaps, and may have added health benefits. The folic acid in most multivitamins helps prevent neural tube defects in newborns, if women take it before they become pregnant; folic acid may also lower the risk of heart disease, colon cancer, and breast cancer. Vitamin D from a multivitamin or single supplement can lower the risk of colon and possibly many other cancers, as well as other chronic diseases.
Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. It’s important not to go overboard with vitamins. While a multivitamin and a vitamin D supplement can help fill some of the gaps in a less than optimal diet, too much can be harmful. In general, stick close to standard recommended doses in a multivitamin. And since your multivitamin will likely contain all the folic acid you’ll need, stay away from cereals, protein bars, and other foods that are super-fortified with folic acid.
Read enough nutrition news, and you’ll see that not all scientists agree on multivitamins. Some say that there’s not enough proof that multivitamins boost health, so they don’t recommend them. It’s a short-sighted point of view. Other scientists point to studies that seem to show a link between multivitamin use and increased risk of death. But those studies are flawed. Looking at all the evidence, the potential health benefits of taking a standard daily multivitamin seem to outweigh the potential risks for most people.
5 Quick Tips: Getting the Right Vitamins
1. Eat a healthy diet. A multivitamin provides some insurance against deficiencies but is far less important for health than the healthy food patterns described on this website. Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and healthy oils, and low in red meat and unhealthy fats—let the Healthy Eating Pyramid be your guide.
2. Choose a daily multivitamin. A daily multivitamin is an inexpensive nutrition insurance policy. Try to take one every day.
3. Think about D. In addition to its bone health benefits, there’s growing evidence that getting some extra vitamin D can help lower the risk of colon and breast cancer. Aim for getting 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day—this likely will require an extra vitamin D pill, in addition to your multivitamin. For more information, see the vitamin D section of The Nutrition Source.
4. Say no to “megas.” In general, avoid mega-dose vitamins and mega-fortified foods. Higher doses of vitamin E may help to prevent heart disease, but in general, the amount in a standard multivitamin is enough to have health benefits. A standard multivitamin also has a day’s worth of folic acid, so you should avoid foods that have high amounts of folic acid added to them. Vitamin D is an exception, as many people need more than the RDA.
5. Avoid “super” supplements. Don’t be swayed by the wild health claims of the many health supplements advertised on TV and the Internet. If they sound too good to be true, you can be sure they are. Save your money for healthy food and a good vacation.
Learn more about multivitamin supplements and about some of the vitamins with newly recognized or suspected roles in health and disease:
Nutrition Insurance Policy: Learn why a multivitamin-multimineral supplement can fill in micronutrient gaps in your diet.
Keep the Multi, Skip the Heavily Fortified Foods: Why you should keep taking a daily multivitamin but skip foods that are heavily fortified with folic acid.
Antioxidants: Beyond the Hype: What’s the buzz around antioxidants—and what’s the evidence?
Supplement Studies: Sorting Out the Confusion: How to make sense of the media hype around supplements.
The aim of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source is to provide timely information on diet and nutrition for clinicians, allied health professionals, and the public. The contents of this Web site are not intended to offer personal medical advice. You should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Web site. The information does not mention brand names, nor does it endorse any particular products.