Are multivitamins really good for me?

Staying Healthy Image Gallery If you need this many vitamins, perhaps you should take a look at your diet. Get health tips with staying healthy pictures.
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Your diet stinks. You hate eating vegetables, and whole wheat pita bread can't hold a candle to a nice fat hoagie roll. Desserts rank higher on your list than fresh fruit, and bacon and hash browns beat the heck out of an egg white omelet every time. If your idea of the four basic food groups is fried, buttered, sweet and salty, then we're talking to you.

You think you've got it all under control because of that magic little pill called the multivitamin. You take it every day without fail. It says right on the container that it gives you everything you need, so why bother with a balanced diet, right? Not so fast. While multivitamins have their place, they aren't for everyone and they can even cause more harm than benefit in some cases.

The "one-a-day" multivitamin was introduced to American consumers more than 60 years ago and since then has become a staple for tens of millions of adults and children each day. Most multivitamins on the market contain 10 vitamins and 10 minerals to supplement your regular diet, which is about a full day's worth of the recommended amount, aside from calcium, which is too bulky to pack into a pill. Multivitamins claim to help build your immune system and reduce the risk of some chronic diseases like colon cancer and cardiovascular disease. They do, to some degree, but some recent studies indicate that some of these vitamins aren't all they're made out to be.

Multivitamins are a good way to help supplement a diet for those who don't always have time to shop for fresh vegetables, fruit and whole grains. But most health experts agree that a multivitamin is no replacement for a good, well-balanced diet. In fact, if you do eat a well-balanced diet, you not only have no need for a multivitamin, but you actually could be getting too much of a good thing -- especially when you consider that many foods are already fortified with vitamins and minerals. Supplementing the areas where your diet falls short with specific vitamins may be a better plan if you're a relatively healthy eater.

­The trick to taking multivitamins is finding the right one for you. There are pills for kids, adult men, adult women before and after menopause, women planning on having a baby, women already pregnant or lactating and people over 60 years old. There are also multivitamins specifically targeted for vegetarians and vegans. Some vitamins claim to give you energy or aid in weight loss, but you should be wary of these -- their effects have not been clinically studied.

Multivitamin Health Benefits

Vitamins can be good for you, but could never replace the food pyramid.
Vitamins can be good for you, but could never replace the food pyramid.
Tetra Images/Getty Images

Eating enough food that will supply your body with the recommended daily value (DV) of nutrients your body needs is possible, but not easy. You'd really need to be vigilant about what you eat and keep track of exactly what goes into your mouth. If you're busy and on-the-go like most of us, you may have a hard time doing this, in which case a multivitamin may be right for you.

Here are some basic rules you can use to find a multivitamin that works for you:

  • For men: You won't need as much iron as a woman, only about eight milligrams per day. You can most likely get that much iron from your diet if you're a meat eater. Pork, beef, shrimp, turkey and liver all contain a lot of iron. So do potatoes with the skin on, lentils and beans, and oysters. Most multivitamins for men contain no iron at all. They also contain extra selenium, a mineral, and vitamin E to help prevent prostate problems.
  • For women: You need extra iron because of a loss of the mineral during monthly menstruation, about 18 milligrams per day. If you've made it through menopause, then congratulations -- you'll now need a little more vitamin D in your multivitamin. Folic acid is big for women who plan on having children. It prevents certain neural tube defects like spina bifida, so doctors recommend that all women take extra folic acid during their childbearing years. There are also pre-natal vitamins specific to women looking to get pregnant that contain more folic acid and extra vitamin A.
  • For kids: Contrary to what you might think, kids don't really need large amounts of vitamins and minerals. A lot of children's foods are already fortified with vitamins and minerals, so if your child eats a well-balanced diet then he or she may not even need a multivitamin. Vitamin D is important for bone growth and it's difficult to get enough through diet, so most children's multivitamins contain large amounts of it. Multivitamins for kids often look and taste like candy, so never allow them to take the pills themselves and keep them out of reach.
  • For the over-60s: If you're more than 60 years old, then you should probably take a daily multivitamin. Sadly, as we age we lose the ability to absorb certain vitamins and nutrients. B12 is one of these, so multivitamins for older folks contain more of it. Vita­min K can help protect you from hip troubles, but it can also mess with your blood-thinning medication, so consult your doctor for a recommended multivitamin that jibes with your meds. Too much iron is no good for the older set, so most multivitamins for the elderly don't contain any. Look for men's and women's formulas for multivitamins formulated for people over 60.
  • For vegetarians and vegans: If you're one of these people, you'll have a laundry list of vitamins and minerals you won't be getting without a meat and dairy-rich diet. Iron, magnesium, selenium, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and B12 are likely to be scarce if you're the type to eat Tofurkey with soy gravy every Thanksgiving. Choose a vegetarian specific multivitamin to help you restore these necessary nutrients.

Despite the fact that multivitamins are recommended for many people, not everyone needs them, and some doctors even think that they can do more harm than good in certain cases. Studies in the past few years have revealed some startling new findings for people who rely on multivitamins to provide their recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals.

Multivitamin Medical Research

Folic acid is important for pregnant women.
Folic acid is important for pregnant women.
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Some studies in recent years have revealed a couple of negatives concerning multivitamins. One is that some of them may give you too much of a good thing, which can lead to health problems. The other is that some multivitamins don't contain exactly what the label says, and some even contain a little something extra. 

The Harvard Men's Health Watch published a study in March 2008 that indicated that large amounts of folic acid could be linked to prostate and colorectal cancers. Folic acid itself isn't so bad, but food companies started adding it to grain products in the mid-1990s, so if you're eating a healthy diet, you may be getting plenty of it from your food. The multivitamin then pushes you over the folic-acid edge and a step closer to cancer.

Another study performed by pharmaceutical watchdog ConsumerLab.com found that less than half of the multivitamins sold in the United States and Canada actually contained what the labels said they did. One of the vitamins even contained a little something extra -- lead. If you're thinking that you shouldn't have lead in your vitamin, then you're right. The product was The Vitamin Shoppe's Especially for Women multivitamin. It contained 15.3 micrograms of lead per daily dose. Among other things, lead in the body can lead to high blood pressure. Since the report was released in 2007, the product was removed from the shelves and a class action settlement was reached with consumers.

Another multivitamin for children, Hero Nationals Yummi Bears, contained 216 percent of the amount of vitamin A that was indicated on the label. That's more than double the amount of vitamin A that kids through the age of eight should be getting on a daily basis. What can too much vitamin A do to a growing child? Weaken their bones and potentially cause abnormalities in the liver. Not really very "Yummi" when you think about it.

So do you need to be worried and ditch your multivitamin? Not necessarily. Your best bet is to visit ConsumerLab.com and do a little research on the vitamins it recommends. Eat a balanced, nutritional diet and you may only have to supplement your food intake with vitamins specific to your needs. Mainstream multivitamins that have been around for many years are to be trusted and you can always check for a seal of approval from the United States Pharmacopoeia, the NSF International or ConsumerLab.com. If your brand of multivitamin fails to have one of these seals, that means the manufacturer didn't submit its product for voluntary testing. Vitamins aren't regulated like prescription and over-the-counter medications, so be wary of any that don't volunteer for testing.

Be your own advocate, do the research and talk to your doctor before you begin taking a multivitamin. If you already take one, compare its ingredients to your diet to make sure you aren't getting too much of any one vitamin or mineral.

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Sources

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