How to choose a multivitamin

Why take a food supplement?

30 million adults in the UK now take food supplements every week with 45% of these people consuming a multivitamin product daily. Knowing whether to take a multivitamin and if so, which one, is an important question we should all be asking.

Headlines often appear with the age-old question of whether taking a multivitamin supplement will promote better health and prevent disease and, as we move into a new decade, this debate is likely to continue. Some support the use of multivitamins as part of a lifestyle approach to maintaining health but there are others who say food supplements are simply a waste of money producing nothing more than expensive urine! 

So, who do we believe? How do we ensure we are selecting the right product if the health research for food supplements really stacks up?

Do food supplements just create expensive urine?

We can all agree that consumption of healthy, nutrient-dense food is an absolute requirement of health, but there are many incidences where this may not be enough; from poor food choice to low nutrient levels in foods to specific individual nutrient requirements. Inadequate intake of several vitamins has also been linked to chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis.

Diet versus food supplements: Why your diet may not supply enough micronutrients

Those who dismiss food supplement advice often point to the availability of vitamins and minerals in a diet containing a large variety of foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. This is fundamentally true but ignores the reality that many children and adults in the UK simply do not consume the recommended daily intake of five portions of fruit and vegetables.

Add in regular “anti-health” foods and activities including fizzy drinks, alcohol, smoking, processed foods containing high levels of refined carbohydrates, preservatives and food additives, excessive exposure to UV radiation and taking regular medicines that can deplete micronutrients, we can see how nutrient deficiencies can develop.

In addition, the “diet contains all the nutrients we need” mantra does not address the research indicating a declining nutrient content of food products in the UK. The increased demand for food and the reduction of farming land has resulted in overuse of soils and a substantial loss of food quality. A report published by the Food Commission found that since 1940, food products in the UK including fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy have lost substantial mineral concentrations. 

“If you are eating the same key foods today as those eaten in 1940 you are consuming between 10% and 70% less essential minerals with each meal.”

The body must prioritise nutrients for essential functions however, if we are constantly eating foods deficient in vitamins and minerals, there is the potential for symptom development from not enough nutrients to go around. Simply put, the crop of diseases associated with ageing that are in rapid ascendency, including diabetes, dementia, cancer, cardiovascular and liver disease, may well be linked in part to long-term exposure to a nutrient-poor diet.

Do multi-nutrient supplements really work?

Evidence is stacking up that consuming a high-quality multi-nutrient food supplement in addition to your sound dietary choices will decrease your risk of developing a nutrient-insufficiency condition.

The elderly: Vitamin B12 absorption decreases with age, and elderly people may also need higher amounts of calcium and vitamin D.

Vegans and vegetarians are at high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency since this vitamin is only found in animal foods. Also consider supplementation with calcium, zinc, iron, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women: Pregnant and breastfeeding women should talk to their doctor as some nutrients are needed, including folic acid and for some women iron, while others (like vitamin A) can cause birth defects in large amounts.

It’s not just specific groups of people that may benefit from additional nutrients through food supplements. Most of us can do with an energy boost, supporting our immune systems, especially through the winter months, and keeping our muscles and bones healthy. For this reason, daily intake of extra nutrients like vitamin C, which contributes to the normal function of the immune system and energy production, magnesium, which contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue, and B vitamins, which contribute to the normal function of the immune system and reduction of tiredness and fatigue, may benefit us all.

How to choose a multi-vitamin supplement

It’s important to remember that not all forms of supplementary nutrients are the same and this can impact the fundamentals from absorption into the body to the availability of nutrients for our cells to use (i.e. supplement bioavailability).

It may seem a confusing subject but it’s simply a case of reading food supplement labels. 

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Last revised: 15 July 2020
Next review: 23 March 2021