Many of us wrestle with whether or not we should take a daily multivitamin. And recent news reports may have left some of us more undecided than ever. Here's the scoop on taking multivitamins from an interview with Duffy MacKay, ND, vice president of Scientific & Regulatory Affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition.
Q. We're reading in the news that multivitamins are unnecessary; in fact, they may even cause harm.
A. Multivitamins are generally safe. In fact, the Physicians' Health Study II of 14,000 participants who took multivitamins showed no adverse events associated with taking them. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force shows overwhelming evidence of their safety.
What you are hearing about in the news—but what is not made completely clear—is older data about supplemental high doses of beta-carotene and its adverse effect on smokers and asbestos workers. But it's important to note that this is limited only to these two groups.
Q. So, can a multivitamin help prevent things like heart disease and cancer?
A. The evidence that everyone should take a multivitamin to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease is limited. But some studies do show a modest reduction in cancer among individuals who take multivitamins. It's a tough thing to measure—that group studied may be a group that is more likely to practice healthy behaviors in the first place. The evidence that multivitamins protect against age-related cognitive decline is limited. In conclusion, if you're taking a multivitamin to prevent serious disease, you will be disappointed.
Q. Under what circumstances should people take a multivitamin?
A. The number one reason is to fill in the nutrient gaps in our diet. We know that most Americans are deficient in vitamin B, potassium, calcium and fiber. Additionally, a small percentage of people over 50 will have a tough time absorbing enough vitamin B-12 and may be deficient. And pregnant women will need supplemental folic acid and iron in many cases.
Remember, a multivitamin is not a magic bullet. Neither is it a weight-loss pill. It just fills your nutrient gaps, as the typical diet for most men and women doesn't supply enough of certain vitamins (most commonly, vitamin D).
Q. How do people know if they are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals?
A. Once you start asking people what they eat and don't eat, the list expands rapidly. For example, vegetarians are generally low in vitamin B and iron. If someone is lactose intolerant, where's their calcium coming from? They likely will need a calcium supplement.
Only .05 percent of the population eats "right" and has close to a perfect diet. They may not need a multivitamin … but for all others, I'd recommend it.
Remember, it's best to discuss your diet with your health care provider to access where the nutritional gaps exist.
The cost of using a multivitamin is relatively small, ranging from between $20 and $30 per year for brand-name products. If you purchase the large economy-sized containers, it can run as little as $10 annually.
Q. How can you know what brand to buy?
A. Nationally recognized brands or store brands from a trusted retailer will help ensure a product's safety. These companies have a lot at stake and, as a result, invest a lot of time, effort and resources to ensure their products live up to their reputation.
The Office of Dietary Supplements (http://ods.od.nih.gov/) provides a helpful fact sheet that gives a current overview of vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements.
You might also want to read: Getting the Vitamins and Minerals You Need
Tune in next week when I write about tips on how to be a smart and savvy consumer when it comes to purchasing dietary supplements and how to read a nutrition label.