If you’ve been to a chain grocery store lately, you might have seen a long aisle of vitamins and supplements near the pharmacy. It makes sense: There are over 90,000 different supplements available in the United States,1 and 76% of adults take at least one.2 By far the most popular are multivitamins, which are believed to improve overall health and reduce the risk of developing chronic conditions. But are they all they’re hyped up to be?
Do multivitamins work?
Long story short, no. Studies show that in most cases, multivitamins don’t reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, or memory loss.3
Most adults can get the vitamins and minerals they need from a balanced diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins like beans and lentils offer other ingredients your body needs, too, like fiber and antioxidants. So instead of reaching for a multivitamin, focus on getting the most out of your food, which is more likely to keep you healthy.
If you’re not sure whether you’re already getting enough vitamins and minerals, you can use a tool like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online nutrition calculator.
When should you take a multivitamin?
All-in-one multivitamins aren’t usually necessary, but in some cases, certain vitamins may be beneficial to your health. For example, you might need a supplement if you’re:
- Breastfeeding, pregnant, or considering getting pregnant — Folic acid, calcium, and iron can help keep you and your growing baby healthy.
- 50 or older — As you age, your body has a harder time absorbing vitamin B12, and you may need more vitamin D and calcium for bone health.
- On a restrictive diet — If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet or have any food allergies, eating disorders, or limited access to nutritious food, supplements may help reduce your risk of malnutrition.
- A former bariatric surgery patient — Gastric bypass and other weight-loss or intestinal surgeries can impair your body’s ability to absorb many nutrients.
If you fall into one of these categories or have any other nutrition concerns, be sure to talk to your doctor about the right option for your specific needs.
How do you choose the right supplement?
Once you have an idea of the kind of vitamin or mineral you need, you’re ready to head back to the supplement aisle. But keep a few things in mind:
- Don’t depend on brand names. In most cases, expensive or brand-name vitamins aren’t any better than store or generic brands with the same levels of vitamins and minerals.
- Always check expiration dates. Throw away expired supplements, and don’t buy supplements that will expire before you expect to finish the container.
- Don’t trust every claim on the label. Unlike with medicines, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t research whether supplements are effective before they’re marketed.4 When in doubt, check with your doctor.
Once you’ve made your choice, be sure to keep your doctor and pharmacist in the loop, since some supplements may interact with your medication.
Can you take too many vitamins?
Taking too much of a vitamin can be just as serious as not getting enough. For example, vitamins B and C will usually pass through your body naturally, but vitamins A, D, E, and K can build up over time and become toxic.
In fact, researchers say that each year in the U.S., about 23,000 ER visits and over 2,100 hospitalizations involve dietary supplements.5 So it’s important to follow the recommended daily amounts of each ingredient, or what your doctor suggests.
It’s also important to note that some vitamins and minerals can make each other less effective. So, if you plan to take more than one daily vitamin, check with a doctor or nutritionist to make sure you’re getting the most out of your regimen.
What if you’re still not sure about supplements?
A balanced diet is the best way to get the nutrients your body needs, and supplements won’t make up for a poor diet. Start checking food labels and USDA nutrition information to compare the recommended vitamin and mineral levels to what you’re eating. You can use a food journal to track your eating habits, and then talk to your doctor if you think you still need a supplement.
1Michael Incze, MD, MSEd, “Vitamins and Nutritional Supplements: What Do I Need to Know?” JAMA Internal Medicine, January 7, 2019.
2 “Dietary Supplement Usage Increases, Says New Survey,” Council for Responsible Nutrition, October 19, 2017.
3 “Is There Really Any Benefit to Multivitamins?” Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed July 15, 2021.
4 “Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know,” National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, accessed July 15, 2021.
5 Andrew I. Geller, MD, et al., “Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Events Related to Dietary Supplements,” The New England Journal of Medicine, October 15, 2015.