This is one of the most confusing topics most of us face. Should we be taking a multivitamin? And how do we make sense of all the products on display in the vitamin aisle?
What is a multivitamin?
Let's begin with a short definition of a multivitamin, so we all know what we are talking about :-). A multivitamin can come in the form of a pill, capsule, powder, gummy bear, liquid or even in the form of an injection (only get this done by certified integrative doctors, not at any random nutrition shop around the corner!). A multivitamin contains a combination of essential vitamins and minerals. Often you can also find other nutrients added as a bonus, for example omega 3 fats or probiotics.
Food first - clean up your diet
Let's start by answering the question first. I don't believe everyone needs to take a multivitamin. We mostly think of multivitamins as quick fixes. We think we can eat anything we want, and then just pop a gummy bear vitamin, and all of our body's needs are taken care of. That is sadly not the case. A multivitamin can be helpful in times of stress, a lowered immune system (for example when kids start a daycare or school), or when we have simply a higher need for vitamins and minerals, like during pregnancy or healing from surgeries.
The reality is that no pill can ever simulate what real food can do for our body. When we eat an apple, there are thousands of nutrient compounds in there. They all work together for the perfect absorption and to balance our body's systems. If we isolate one of those vitamins - let's say vitamin C - it loses all of its buddies that help it get to where it needs to go. This isolated vitamin C will have a much harder time to get digested, absorbed, and then find it's destination in the wound you just got on your hand to help heal it.
Before you start supplementing randomly, I always suggest you start with cleaning up the way you eat. In certain situations, my clients are very depleted in certain nutrients and definitely need to supplement them to get back to a more balanced state. However, I will only do this once we have blood tests that can confirm what the situation looks like. Supplementing randomly is like throwing a pebble into the sea, hoping it will land in a very specific spot.
It all starts with healing your digestion
I have a few more posts coming up about the importance of our digestion, but here is a little break down why it is so important for us to take care of our digestive tract. Even if you eat vitamin and mineral rich, sometimes they just come right back out with your bowel movement instead of getting to their destination. What a waste of a wonderfully cooked meal and the money you spent on all this food! Sadly, for more than 80% of us, the digestive tract is broken. Eating processed foods filled with artificial colors, flavors, and other additives, as well as relying too much on wheat and dairy has led to a digestive tract that resembles a garbage bin rather than a well functioning garbage disposal. The digestive tract can't digest nutrients properly anymore, so instead of the vitamins and minerals getting moved from your gut into the blood and then to their destination, they just come straight back out. When we think we are deficient in certain nutrients and we believe we have taken the first step in cleaning up our diet, then we need to look at our digestion, and how well that is working.
Our food is depleted
The next sobering truth is that our food is not as vitamin and mineral dense as it was just 50 years ago. Our grandparents ate very different food, never needing to supplement with a multivitamin. Our agricultural practices are much more aggressive, leaving our soil depleted. Even if you eat a good amount of plants, you are probably not getting all the nutrients you need from your food. Choosing organic foods can be helpful in this case. The soil in organic farming is still nutrient richer, meaning your fruit and vegetables will also be more nutrient dense.
You may think "I have a higher need for vitamins and minerals because of my stress, and I don't get as many as I need through my food, so why shouldn't I take a multivitamin?" I don't think that a multivitamin is necessarily the best choice. Many minerals and vitamins interfere with each other's ability to get digested and used in the body. For example calcium and zinc use the same path from the intestine into the blood. When taken together, zinc always loses out. This means even though you are supplementing zinc with a multivitamin, you could still be deficient in it. I often prefer to supplement individual nutrients according to your nutritional status. This way they can be spread out throughout the day. This however means you would need to get a full nutritional panel done at your doctor's office or with a private company like Genova. These tests are of course never covered by your health insurance, and they are expensive. And I can honestly say that not everyone is diligent enough to take different kinds of capsules throughout the day without forgetting them. So yes, in the end if you feel like a multivitamin could be beneficial for you, go for it. It's often better than nothing, just be aware that it will not help with all your nutrient needs.
How to choose your multivitamin
When buying multivitamins, be diligent. Turn them around and read the ingredients label, just like you would (or should) with any other food you buy. Not every multivitamin that costs more is automatically also better. There is a great company called Labdoor, that tests supplements for their efficacy and ingredients. The list of multivitamins on their site is growing every day, and it can be helpful to browse and see how your supplements are ranking here. If you can't find any information on your multivitamin brand, then be your own detective:
Is is natural (not just on the label but the ingredient list) or synthetic? I prefer to get a multivitamin that is made from whole foods. In this case you will find a list of vegetable and fruit on the ingredient list in potent quantities. As mentioned above, the synthetic version can just never be as helpful as the real version. There are certain vitamins, where the synthetic version actually can be toxic. This is for example the case when it comes to Vitamin D. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is the natural occurring vitamin D in your body made by the sun shining on your skin. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) on the other hand is synthetic and responsible for most toxicity problems when it comes to Vitamin D.
Are fillers used? Cheap multivitamins will be filled with wheat, dairy, soy, and corn to make up the majority of the pill, capsule or powder. Try to find a multivitamin that has neither of these fillers, as they can interfere with the digestive process (see digestion part above) of the vitamins and minerals.
Is it non-GMO: genetically modified organisms are a huge controversy - there is too much to say about them to get into that right now. The problem is that some of us react allergic to GMOs, often without knowing it. So the very thing that is supposed to make you feel better - the multivitamin - will actually make you feel worse. When you find non-GMO multivitamins, it also means you avoid the above mentioned fillers, as these are mostly GMOs.
Avoid sugars: this is difficult when it comes to children's vitamins. They need to be delicious enough for a child to take them. Look for brands that at least use real sugar, stevia, or honey instead of high fructose corn syrup. It can also be helpful to just take regular capsules, opening them up, and adding them to smoothies. This way kids don't need to swallow a big multivitamin. Sadly it is difficult to find a children's formula that isn't sweetened, and you may want to be cautious using adult vitamins and quantities. Talk to your pediatrician about this.
Buying high quality multivitamin can get pricey, so you want to make sure that you get a good one that will actually help to make you feel better. Try out a new brand for one month, and see how you feel. Rotating your multivitamins (and really all supplements) can be very useful to get the most benefits with the least amount of harm. I don't like to give a lot of recommendations on brands I use, because the market changes so quickly, and depending on where you live you may not have these available to you. However, because I get asked this question about multivitamins a lot, I have linked to a few of my favorite brands below.
Alternatives to multivitamins
I do want to mention two food groups that are powerhouses when it comes to vitamin and mineral density:
Herbs: in more and more health stores you are now able to find herbal supplements that are rich in minerals and vitamins. The reason I personally love to use herbs is because they are a whole food. If you make a tea or drops out of them (for example echinacea), your body will take what it needs, and leave the rest. There is no risk of overdosing like on synthetic copies.
Superfoods: true superfoods like medicinal mushrooms, raw cacao, açaí berry, chia seeds, algae, and maca for example are worth mentioning when we are talking about vitamins and minerals. The reason these are called superfoods (and not everything like a simple chicken breast fall into this category) is because they are incredibly dense in vitamins and minerals. For example raw cacao has triple the amount of iron compared to beef or lamb and 28% more calcium than cow's milk. I think that's amazing news, because you can eat all the raw chocolate you want! Using small amounts of these superfoods in our daily meals can help to fulfill all of our vitamin and mineral needs without the use of a multivitamin.
I hope this helps you to navigate the multivitamin aisle. I know it can be an overwhelming task, especially because it's not all black and white - like most things in the nutrition field. If you have any more questions around this topic, please comment below or send me a love note. I love to hear from you!
Some of my favorite multivitamin brands:
Mary Ruth Organics is a brand I love - without the fillers, without the GMOs, completely vegan, and made with organic ingredients. They have a morning and a night time formula.
Garden of Life is a brand that also uses real ingredients. They have a big selection of multivitamins for women, men, children, and even different age groups. This specific one also contains probiotics. This selection of vitamins is raw, meaning the vegetables and fruit don't get heated over 46°C/115°F to maximize the amount of nutrients that survive.
MyKind is another one of Garden of Life's brands.
It is made from whole foods, and completely vegan.
This is my favorite children's formula made in Germany :-).
It is made with honey and the vitamins and minerals are easy to digest in this formula.