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Choosing a Multivitamin

There are different perspectives and opinions regarding the need to take a multivitamin.  Many believe if a person eats a balanced diet, it’s not necessary to take one – it’s overkill and most of it goes to waste.

The flip-side is many think a multivitamin is a safety net that ensures a person gets the vitamins, minerals and micronutrients he needs; in case the diet doesn’t provide what it should.  Each side has a valid point; ultimately leaving the decision of whether a multivitamin is necessary up to you.  Regardless of where you stand, eating a diet that’s rich in unprocessed healthy food is essential for promoting optimal health.  However, there lies the quandary… is our food capable of supplying the necessary nutrients?

If it were a perfect world, with perfect food, I’d say don’t waste your money on vitamins.

But, since our food is lacking in nutrition, consideration should be given to taking a multivitamin; in order to compensate our less than ideal diets.  Soil is lacking many nutrients it once had, which means our food is also lacking.  Pile on the scary reality of the typical American diet, and I probably don’t have to say much to convince you of the probable need for dietary supplements.  So, let’s take a look at multivitamins and some of the issues surrounding them, in order to help you make the right choice.

It doesn’t seem like choosing a multivitamin should be all that difficult or mind boggling, but the truth is it’s not easy.

With the countless brands, and varieties within the brands, available in today’s market, choosing an appropriate multi that meets our needs is often nothing more than a guessing game, or an exercise in good faith – faith that the label is honest and trust worthy regarding its ingredients.  As much as we want to believe a company or label is truthful about its ingredients, we know the reality of today’s business practices.  As consumers, we need to be in defensive mode and purchase most things with careful consideration.  Well, multivitamins are no exception.

So, what does this mean?  Do we need to research the numerous companies, or just put our trust into the well known companies that can afford the best advertisement?  Once again, it’s up to you, but I do suggest you become proactive about your health and make decisions based on factual information… which isn’t easy when it comes to supplements, since it’s an unregulated industry.  Many companies have their products independently tested to ensure quality, but many don’t – particularly the cheaper brands.  Does independent testing guarantee what’s on the label is in the bottle?  Not necessarily, but I believe it’s safer to go with a reputable company versus a “hope and a prayer” brand.  That being said, let’s talk about the different types of multivitamins.

Before you buy, decide if you want to take a natural, whole food (vitamins and minerals derived from food) multi, or a synthetic, chemical based one.

Some research supports the theory that the body doesn’t know the difference – a vitamin is a vitamin; however, whole food supplement enthusiasts believe that since the body is designed to absorb nutrients from food, natural supplements are better liked and utilized by the body than those made from chemicals.  As a result, natural supplements, whose nutrients are based on amounts the average body actually needs, have lower levels of nutrients in them because in theory, the body should be able to absorb the entire supplement, getting what it needs.  Synthetic supplements typically have higher amounts of vitamins and minerals in them, in hopes the body will be able to absorb enough of the (synthetic) ingredients to get what it needs.

There are also synthetic supplements that contain whole foods.  I’ve heard the term “co-natural” used for this type product.  Basically, herbs or whole foods have been added to a synthetic supplement, in order to offer more nutrients and to appeal to the natural market.  These supplements are confusing because they give the impression they’re a whole food supplement.  Don’t be fooled.  Read between the lines of a label and decipher what it’s really saying.  I’m of the opinion that if you choose a synthetic multi, but want the benefit of some natural ingredients, this type of supplement is a good choice.

The downside to whole food supplements is the cost.  The process of making them is more involved and costly, and that expense gets passed onto the consumer.  The upside to synthetic multivitamins is they’re less expensive.  Often, what determines a person’s choice is the price tag.  If you believe natural supplements are the better option, but can’t afford them, taking a synthetic multi is probably better than taking none at all.

Regardless of your preference, how do you choose a good supplement?

Are all natural multis the same?  Are all synthetic vitamins the same?  If you’ve ever read the list of ingredients on the back of a supplement label you know the answer is NO.  The options of ingredients and their amounts span the spectrum.  You can find just about anything you want.  From gender and age to health status – there’s a multi for everyone!  However, many authorities believe the added ingredients, particularly herbal extracts, shouldn’t be taken long term.  Herbs were man’s first medicine, and are still the basis for many of today’s modern drugs.  So, caution needs to be used when choosing a multi that has everything but the kitchen sink in it.  More is not necessarily best.  I suggest you at least choose a multi that meets the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) of daily nutrients.  Check this website out to calculate your dietary requirements based on gender and age:  Any nutrients beyond the daily requirements are optional, and rarely have an RDA value placed on them because these “extra” nutrients haven’t been determined to be essential to our dietary needs.

Speaking of the RDA, I want to point out that most of these values were established around fifty years ago, by medical doctors who probably knew less about nutrition than doctors know today.  My reason for mentioning this is to point out yesterday’s needs were very different than today’s needs because of our lifestyle changes; along with today’s more advanced and sophisticated research, many authorities question using old RDA standards.  Consequently, many supplement companies add amounts well beyond the RDA to better serve us, and like I already stated, for absorption efficiency.

You’ll most likely find the “% Daily Value” listed next to a nutrient on a supplement label instead of the RDA values.  The reason for this is to give the consumer information about the percentage or amount of the daily requirement that’s in the supplement, not the RDA… which can be figured out if you do the math.  If there is no “% Daily Value”, then no RDA has been established.  Does that make sense

There’s controversy between multis that require we take only one tablet or capsule a day, and those whose daily dose require several tablets/capsules be taken.  The truth is most of us prefer to take as few vitamins as possible; however, the problem with a one-daily multi can be the amount of nutrients it contains.  When compared, a one-daily typically has fewer ingredients in it than a multi whose daily dose is three, four or even more tablets/capsules.  It stands to reason you can only fit so much into something… so something’s got to give, and it’s usually the amount of vitamins and minerals in the single multi, especially if it’s a whole food supplement.  Read labels, compare the values in each product, and then make your decision based on your personal needs.  Remember, taking two or more of a one-daily multi should never be done, since doubling up on some vitamins and minerals can be dangerous.

Another issue for men is iron.  Most, if not all, men’s multivitamins do not include iron.  Traditionally, only those suffering from anemia or menstruating women, whose iron levels drop because of monthly blood loss, have been designated to need iron.  However, today’s research finds this is not the case.  Newer research proves that iron is lost through sweat and certain exercises like running.  Tiny vessels break in the feet of runners, causing iron loss.  So, if you’re an athlete (or vegan or vegetarian), you may want to consider having your iron levels checked at your next physical.  Simple blood tests can determine if you need iron.  Never take iron unless you’re sure you need it, since it can be very damaging if you don’t.  If you do need it, I don’t recommend taking a multi with iron, since some vitamins and minerals – vitamin E and calcium for instance – interfere with iron’s absorption.  Taking iron as a separate supplement is best.

Tablet versus capsule… it’s a personal preference.

Years ago, tablets were notorious for staying whole and not dissolving in the gut.  Today’s manufacturing has improved and this isn’t typically an issue.  However, it still can be, especially if your digestion isn’t up to par.  Capsules usually dissolve because the capsule itself is typically made of gelatin, which most people can digest.  There are many liquid multis on the market, too.  These are probably the best choice as far as absorption goes, so look into liquids if you have digestion issues, have trouble swallowing tablets or capsules, or just prefer taking liquids.

Read labels and take vitamins according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.  That being said, I want to mention most multivitamins should be taken with food, preferably in the morning with breakfast.  When taken with food, the supplement blends in with the food and is better absorbed.  Another reason to take multis with food is to prevent nausea, which can easily happen if taken on an empty stomach.  Morning is the best time to take a multi, so you can benefit from the energy it gives throughout the day.

Educate yourself about multivitamins as much as possible by reading and talking with experts in the nutrition field, or even your doctor.  A little knowledge goes a long way, and our health and longevity is worth the investment of knowing which supplements, if any, to take.

by Aaron Marino

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