Do I Really Need A Multivitamin?

And Can They Harm Me?

No, you don't need to take a multivitamin. There are plenty of people who enjoy long, healthy lives without multivitamins, and it is both possible and preferable to get everything the body needs from food sources. Now that we have that out of the way, I would like to review all of the reasons why it is a very good idea to take a multivitamin, and provide some insight into the supposed risks of taking one.

Can't I Get Everything I Need From Food?

There are countless articles on the web by dieticians and nutritionists promoting the idea that the body can get everything it needs from food. And they are right. The only problem is that very few of those articles, if any, tell the reader exactly how to go about doing that.

You can do it- but it's not that easy. All too often when I ask people about their fruit and vegetable intake their reply is something like "Oh I eat lots of salads, and a banana every day!" If only it were that simple. The fact of the matter is that there are over twenty (20) vitamins and minerals that are required for proper bodily function, and you can't get significant amounts of all of them from any single food source. You need to not only eat a variety of foods, but a very specific variety of foods in order to have at least a chance. And even then you probably will not make it on any sort of regular basis unless you are highly committed.

When it comes to the charge of wanton neglect of your nutritional duties you are guilty until proven innocent, and the burden of proof rests upon your shoulders. If you are so sure that you are meeting all of your daily requirements of vitamins and minerals, then you should be able to prove it. There are numerous free food trackers on the web that will analyze your diet and provide detailed feedback on your vitamin and mineral intake. I recommend that you sign up for one and see for yourself. The whole process should take about fifteen (15) minutes and I am willing to bet a one-hour consultation fee that your diet isn't as good as you think it is.

Having analyzed many, many food logs, I can tell you that the three vitamins and minerals where people tend to fall short the most often are zinc, magnesium, and vitamin E. For a detailed explanation of how to meet those specific nutrient needs, see my article "Operation: Strategic Food Consumption." Here is the bottom line. If you are not eating at least one serving of dark leafy greens or beans, and at least one serving of nuts or seeds every single day, you have absolutely no chance. None whatsoever. Also if you don't eat seafood, your chances are pretty much slim to none, and fish sticks don't count.

If you are on a reduced calorie diet, forget it. It is not even theoretically possible to get 100% of the RDA of your essential vitamins and minerals on less than 2000 calories a day, assuming you stay within an acceptable macronutrient (carb:fat:protein) ratio. I don't care what you eat, it's just not going to happen. Chronic dieters are some of the most nutrient-deprived people I have ever met, and it comes from this pernicious idea that all that matters is the calories. Wrong. All that matters is the nutrition. You might be able to lose 50 pounds eating 1200 calories a day of microwave meals and "lowfat" brownie bites, but good luck keeping it off. In order to maintain a healthy weight, your body needs to be functioning properly- and it cannot do that without proper nutrition.

What About Fortified Foods?

Sure you can eat a bowl of Total cereal every morning and that will get you 100% of 11 essential vitamins and minerals. What's your plan for the other 12? Think you are shopping smart when you buy "enriched" flour products? Think again. Hate to break it to you, but what "enriched" really means is that they first took out all of the vitamins and minerals during processing, and then added some of them back in at the end.

Believe me, I have heard every rationale and excuse in the book, and none of them stand up to the simple truth that getting everything the body needs from food takes more effort than most people are willing to put forth.

But Our Ancestors Didn't Take Multivitamins

You are right. Our ancestors also did not eat food grown in nutrient-depleted soils with chemicals that further deplete the body's nutritional resources. Our ancestors did not spend two or more hours breathing in gasoline fumes from the freeway every day. Our ancestors did not live a high-stress life permanently on orange alert. Our ancestors were not chronically sleep-deprived. Our ancestors did not consider beer pong a sport. And our ancestors also did not suffer from rampant heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

But I Exercise... A Lot!

Exercise does not make up for poor nutrition. I repeat: Exercise does not make up for poor nutrition. And just in case you missed it- Exercise does not make up for poor nutrition. I don't know where this idea originated, but it seems to have taken root most strongly among endurance athletes and recreational marathon runners.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Exercise, especially intense prolonged exercise on a regular basis, actually increases the body's nutritional needs. Again, it's not all about the calories, it's all about the nutrition. Thinking that you can consume nothing but noodles and sports drinks because you bust your butt at the gym every day is a very dangerous idea that could land you in the hospital, or worse. You have been forewarned, so don't be surprised when the next gurney that rolls onto the gym floor is for you.

But I Heard That Multivitamins Can Cause Harm

Riiight. Injecting an infant with eight vaccines simultaneously is just fine. No need to concern oneself with the electromagnetic radiation emanating from cell phones and cell phone towers. Fluoridating the water supply is a good idea because it reduces the incidence of dental caries. Drinking diet beverages loaded with phosphoric acid and aspartame is not a problem. People should take statins and antidepressants as preventive medicines. Pay no attention to the chemicals being sprayed in the air by unmarked planes. And corn sugar is peachy keen.

But look out for those multivitamins... they could cause some serious damage!

I'm not quite sure how a health professional could give any more absurd advice than to caution against taking a multivitamin, but nevertheless there is some "evidence" to back up such a backward view. So let's put on our trusty science caps and take a closer look at the studies in question.

One study often quoted by anti-vitamin propagandists is entitled the "Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial" or SELECT. SELECT looked at whether selenium, vitamin E, or both could prevent prostate cancer in otherwise healthy men. The study found that the group receiving vitamin E had more cases of prostate cancer than controls. Even though the differences were not statistically significant, the investigators apparently felt concerned enough to stop the trial.

Firstly I would point out that in all areas of scientific investigation (except apparently this one) findings that are not statistically significant are considered to be useless and are disregarded. Secondly, I would seriously question if these men who developed prostate cancer were really as healthy as the investigators thought when the study began. Thirdly, I cannot think of any biochemical mechanism whereby vitamin E would cause prostate cancer, and none was offered by the authors. Fourthly, the study was not even completed. But I digress.

Most important is the fact that the investigators used a synthetic (as in petroleum-derived) form of vitamin E called dl-alpha-tocopheryl acetate despite the fact that the predominant natural form of vitamin E found in foods is gamma-tocopherol. So in summary, the SELECT study almost- but not quite- suggested that taking synthetic vitamin E might increase the risk of prostate cancer in men who appear to be healthy, even though they are probably not. If anything, the only recommendation a health professional should be making based on this study is to not take synthetic vitamin E. This study belongs in the trash bin.

Two other studies that have gained superstar status among anti-vitamin spin doctors looked at folic acid. They are named: Folic acid for the prevention of colorectal adenomas: a randomized clinical trial and Cancer incidence and mortality after treatment with folic acid and vitamin B12. The first study concluded that further research is needed to investigate the possibility that folic acid supplementation might increase the risk of colon cancer. The second study concluded that folic acid was associated with increased cancer outcomes and all-cause mortality in patients with previous ischemic heart disease. How either of these conclusions could be generalized to a blanket recommendation against multivitamin use is highly curious, to say the least.

OK. OK! But I'm Not Spending More Than Five Bucks A Bottle

Hold it right there Captain Cheap! Despite what you may have heard, all multivitamins are not created equal. Does a Chevy drive like a Cadillac? Is Popov as good as Stoli? Is an authentic NFL jersey the same as a cheap knock-off? Why some people feel that $1 is a great price for a cheeseburger, but an outrageous price for a daily multivitamin dose is really beyond me.

If you are going to buy a multivitamin, do yourself a huge favor and get a good one. The reason that some multivitamins cost more than others are too numerous to get into here, but suffice it to say that it has mostly to do with better ingredients and superior quality control. You wouldn't feed your family Grade B steak for dinner so why give them second-class multivitamins? If you are looking to save a buck, there are plenty to be recovered from your cookies, chips, or alcohol budget, I'm sure.

Conclusions

Multivitamins are not necessary, however there are many good reasons to take them and few good reasons not to. Providing the body with all of the essential vitamins and minerals using food alone is possible, but requires a high level of education and commitment. If you are going to take a multivitamin, it is preferable to get one that uses naturally-sourced nutrients and is manufactured according to the highest standards of quality available.

Here's to your health!