Do you need to take a daily multivitamin?

With so many options, it can be hard to know which supplement is right for you. Here’s how to tell if you’ll actually benefit from a multivitamin’and how to pick the right one

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Is your daily multivitamin doing you any good?

Does your daily health regimen include popping a vitamin? How do you know if it’s doing you good? Over half of all Canadians take vitamin and mineral supplements, believing it’s best for their health.

Yet researchers are rethinking the importance of a daily multivitamin. The University of Minnesota found that women who took multivitamins over a period of 19 years did not live any longer than those who gave multivitamins a miss. Another study, led at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, found similar results in postmenopausal women.

Many experts, like registered dietitian and health educator Phyllis Reid-Jarvis in Winnipeg, say there’s not much to be gained from a multivitamin if you’re in normal physical condition and eating properly. “A healthy diet is the best source of vitamins and minerals for adults,” Reid-Jarvis says.

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The pros: When multivitamins work miracles

Even if you have a healthy diet, that doesn’t mean you can never benefit from multivitamins. “There are some people with various medical conditions that warrant supplements,” says Reid-Jarvis. Diseases like Crohn’s and celiac, for example, can interfere with food absorption. So can gastric bypass surgery. Other individuals who might not get the vitamins and minerals they need from diet alone include vegans, busy students and even picky eaters. Elite athletes, seniors and pregnant women may have special nutritional needs that can be met with multivitamins.

But what if you don’t belong to a high-risk group? The fact is, you might not be deriving much benefit from a multivitamin supplement.

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The cons: When supplements set you back

Some experts say that taking a multivitamin when you don’t need it is not likely to harm your health. If you overdo the recommended daily dose, though, all bets are off. Reid-Jarvis points out that when you take too many supplements, it’s possible to reach toxic levels of certain fat soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K.

There’s also a chance we’ll get lazy about our well-balanced meals if we believe, falsely, that a multivitamin will fulfill all our nutritional needs. “Supplements, as the name indicates, are supposed to be taken as part of a healthy diet,” Reid-Jarvis notes. “They aren’t meant to replace food.”

An experiment in Taiwan even showed that people who are told they’re receiving a multivitamin – but given a placebo – become much more likely to engage in risky behaviours like sunbathing, binge drinking and casual sex. And they’re less likely to exercise and look after their diet.

Multivitamins can also be a hazard to your wallet. Canadians spend almost a billion dollars a year on vitamins and herbs. If it isn’t making a positive difference to your health, then it may not be money well spent.

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Picking the right supplement for you

Still convinced a multivitamin will help your health? Here’s how to buy wisely. “Always choose formulations that are age-specific,” Reid-Jarvis says. Examples on the market include multivitamins especially for adults over 50, for children and for those in between. You can also find products targeted to men, women, pregnant women and vegetarians. If you’re not a fan of swallowing pills, choose chewables instead.

Be sure to read the label: Reid-Jarvis advises that multivitamins should contain less than 3000 IU of vitamin A, at least 400 IU of vitamin D, and 800 to 1000 mg of calcium citrate or calcium sulphate, which are the more easily absorbed forms of calcium. Choose a product that has a NPN (Natural Product Number) or DIN (Drug Identification Number) on its label. That means it’s been evaluated by Health Canada, and it’s a safer choice.

Follow the usage directions printed on the container, and don’t take more than what’s recommended. Don’t take your multivitamins on an empty stomach, or at the same time as other medications.

There’s no question that certain people can benefit from a daily multivitamin. But keep in mind Reid-Jarvis’s bottom line: “If you have no risk factors, you don’t need to supplement,” she says.

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