Ask almost any personal trainer, doctor, or nutritionist what type of supplements you should be taking and 9.9 out of 10 of them will probably start by recommending “a good multivitamin.” I, too, used to recommend them, but not anymore.
It turns out that the best multivitamin may be no multivitamin at all, for a few important reasons. I’m going to lay out my case for this line of thinking and then I will tell you about a few of the supplements I DO recommend.
Let’s start with the quality of multivitamins and then we’ll look at the two dynamics of eating healthy and eating poorly and determine if a multivitamin is appropriate for either of these two lifestyles.
Do multivitamins work as advertised?
The multivitamin waters are murky. There’s three problems you’ll run into right off the bat: multivitamins may be more harmful than beneficial, they may not contain the vitamins and antioxidants they say they contain, and the quality of what they do contain is questionable.
Treatment with beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin E may increase mortality.
That quote comes from a study that looked at 68 different trials spanning supplementation of over 230,000 people. That suggests multivitamin supplementation is probably more harmful than beneficial right off the bat as almost all multivitamins contain those three.
But what about all those other vitamins and antioxidants I’m getting?
Well, the question is, “are you really getting them?” You can’t be sure you’re consuming what the bottle says you’re consuming. Consumer advocacy groups have tested dozens of brands of multivitamins finding that 1 in 3 don’t contain what they say they contain or to levels advertised.
Third, even if they do contain what they say they contain and to the levels advertised, synthetic vitamins are not of the same quality as vitamins received from eating whole food sources. Plus you need to factor in the bioavailability of the chosen ingredients. As one example, Vitamin D is only really usable by the body if it’s Vitamin D3, but a lot of multivitamins contain Vitamin D2 and not Vitamin D3.
Even if those three important problems didn’t exist and multivitamins worked exactly as advertised, there’s additional issues at play that raise important questions. What about competition for absorption? What about going overboard? What about contraindications?
Competition for Absorption.
Some supplements shouldn’t be taken together because they compete for absorption. For instance, Vitamin D and Magnesium compete with each other. Vitamin B-5 inhibits the absorption of biotin. Vitamin A inhibits Vitamin K.
Calcium competes for iron absorption and shouldn’t be taken at the same time. Calcium also competes with magnesium. Fluoride, phosphorus, manganese and zinc absorption also decline when these minerals are taken together with calcium. The list continues.
Does your multivitamin account for this? How?
It might appear well that a product claims to bring you a massive variety of “beneficial” supplements, but the truth is that you’re ingesting a concoction of vitamins and antioxidants that you would not come across in the real world in those quantities and combinations at once.
If the combination is not optimal, what’s the point? If the combination is harmful, it’s definitely a poor choice. The legitimate studies that I’ve seen all point to multivitamin supplementation as being suboptimal and often harmful. That’s two big strikes.
Too much is just as bad, or worse, as too little.
Too much vitamin C or zinc causes nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. Too much selenium could lead to problems including hair loss, gastrointestinal upset, fatigue, and mild nerve damage.
Vitamin D and K can easily reach toxic levels. Severe vitamin B6 toxicity can result in a condition known as sensory neuropathy, which causes pain and numbness in fingers and toes and sometimes difficulty walking.
When it comes to vitamin and antioxidant supplementation, more is not always better. If you’re already eating a healthy diet and avoiding ANTI foods, then you’re already getting a hefty dose of the vitamins and antioxidants that you need. Piling a concentrated dose on top of that is not a good idea.
If your diet is unhealthy and you’re not getting the right nutrients, using a multivitamin as a band-aid for your poor choices is still not a good idea. I know that’s what doctors recommend, but doctors only know how to treat you after you’re sick and have a poor track record of preventing illness.
What are contraindications?
A contraindication is a factor that serves as a reason to withhold a certain medical treatment (or supplementation in this case).
There may be reasons — based on your personal history and lifestyle — that call for you to avoid supplementing with certain vitamins and minerals while requiring supplementation of others.
So how do you know what you need? Well, you test. And then you review your test results with a qualified professional who can then give you a specific course of action.
What you DON’T do is take a synthetic vitamin cocktail and call it a day. Supplementation may be necessary in your case, but specific supplementation — not “spray-and-pray” supplementation — is the key.
Then there’s the fillers and other shenanigans…
Want some gums, glues, fillers, and binders? Your multivitamin probably contains things like hydrogenated oils (an ANTI food), artificial colors, soy, and more.
Did you know that most vitamin B1 supplements are made from derivatives of coal tar? And that ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is made by reacting high-fructose corn syrup with sulfuric acid?
Sodium Aluminum Silicate is found in popular multivitamin brands as a way to speed up tablet production, but acts as a neurotoxin and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Zinc Oxide is prevalent in multivitamins, yet is considered inorganic and is totally different from the zinc derived from food. Zinc oxide is produced when metal zinc is heated and oxidation vapors will form. Inorganic zinc is used for paints, glass, glue, tires plastic, flame retardants etc.
Are your multis in the trash yet?
But there are studies that claim multivitamin supplementation improve mortality!
Of course there are. There are studies that show the Centrum brand of multivitamin (which is a disaster multivitamin) decreases cancer risk by 8%. Is it funded by Centrum? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised — always follow the money.
Also note that the study included people who smoke and a bunch of other confounding variables. In fact, most of the studies I’ve seen are littered with similar confounding variables.
Others I’ve seen simply surveyed people about their multivitamin use, which begs the question: were they consistent? What type of multivitamin were they taking? What other lifestyle factors were at play?
People who take multivitamins tend to be concerned with improving their health already. These people are more likely to lead healthier lifestyles that positively affect mortality than people who don’t take multivitamins. If I eat well and take a multivitamin, I’m going to score better on these studies than someone who eats poorly and doesn’t take one. Is it the multivitamin that made me healthier or the fact that I eat better than other people?
So if the multivitamin is out, does that mean all supplements are out?
I want to make it really clear that I always suggest getting the bulk of your nutrition needs from whole foods. Unfortunately, modern society, lifestyle, and agriculture has made that impossible in a few cases.
I keep an updated list of recommended supplements and an abstract on why they’re important here: The Reboot Supplement Protocol for Superior Health and Performance.
What supplements do you currently take? What’s your multivitamin status? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.