Today's Medicine

Do I Need to Take a Multivitamin and Supplements?

If you’re like many people, taking daily multivitamins and supplements is just something you do.

You know that getting the right vitamins and minerals is important for a healthy lifestyle. You’ve heard about the potential benefits of vitamin D, fish oil and other supplements. You’ve seen the dizzying array of options available for kids, pregnant women, active men and seniors – the list goes on and on. 

So taking a pill or two seems like a good idea, right? Maybe not.

Multivitamins aren’t for everyone

Multivitamins have their uses and can be beneficial, but they aren’t always the right choice. Regardless of your age, your health care provider should be involved in the decision to take one. Here are some other key things to know:

Good nutrition offers more benefits: You’re unlikely to get much benefit from a multivitamin if you have a healthy diet. That’s really the best way to give your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs. A well-rounded diet with a high intake of vegetables, fruits, healthy grains and lean meats provides fiber, healthy fats and micronutrients that aren’t always captured in supplements.

Multivitamins in preventive health: Despite some claims you may have heard, there’s not much evidence that a multivitamin can prevent cancer, reduce the risk of heart disease, decrease mortality or improve memory.

Safe, smart decisions: It’s important to note that unlike prescription medications, multivitamins are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Although taking a daily multivitamin is generally safe, taking more than the recommended amount of certain vitamins and minerals can be harmful. Your doctor should be aware of any over-the-counter vitamins and supplements you’re taking so you can avoid interactions with prescription medications or other risks based on your health history. 

When a multivitamin is the right choice

All this being said, there are legitimate reasons to take a multivitamin. If you’re coming up short on the recommended dietary allowance of vitamins and nutrients, taking a multivitamin can be a cheap and safe way to make up the difference. It’s also easier than taking multiple supplements. However, a multivitamin might not have enough of specific ingredients (such as calcium, vitamin D or iron) to meet your needs, so be sure to do your homework and read the label.

People who may benefit from multivitamins include those who:

  • Get inadequate nutrition or have dietary restrictions
  • Suffer from alcoholism and other substance abuse disorders
  • Have diseases that affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, like celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disorders
  • Have had gastric bypass surgery
  • Are on hemodialysis or tube feeds
  • Are pregnant, considering pregnancy or breastfeeding 

Again, your doctor can help you choose the right multivitamin for your situation. 

What about supplements?

Have you been in the vitamin aisle at the store lately? It’s easy to become confused or intimidated while browsing all your options. Here’s where we currently stand with a few of the more popular supplements:

Calcium and vitamin D: Unlike a routine multivitamin, there is ample evidence to promote the use of calcium and vitamin D in most older adults. Our dietary intake of vitamin D can be quite low, and with less sunshine through the winter months, many adults suffer from vitamin D deficiency. Low calcium and vitamin D levels can increase the risks of osteoporosis and bone fractures. Current daily recommendations include 1200 mg of calcium and between 800-1000 international units (IU) of vitamin D. However, your doctor may recommend otherwise based on your own medical history and lab results.

Fish oil: Fish oil supplements contain omega-3s, which are healthy fatty acids. There is some evidence that omega-3s may improve cholesterol numbers, decrease inflammation in blood vessels and reduce the risk of death immediately after a heart attack. However, there is not robust evidence that regular fish oil supplementation can prevent the onset of heart disease in healthy people. Omega-3s are also being studied for any positive effects on dementia, asthma and depression, but there are no firm conclusions yet. For these reasons, the American Heart Association recommends adults replace less healthy meats with fish at least twice weekly to reduce the risk of heart disease – but it advises against healthy adults using fish oil supplements due to lack of evidence.

What’s it all mean?

As you can see, the decision to take a multivitamin or other supplements is complex. Fortunately, you don’t have to decide alone. Ask your Methodist Physicians Clinic provider for advice on what makes the most sense for your situation.

About the Author

A child of a military family, internal medicine physician Dr. Shana Peper was raised to be selfless and do whatever she could to help others.

She treats a wide range of patients at Methodist Physicians Clinic Indian Hills.

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