Does everyone need to take multivitamins? Here’s what a doctor says

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You probably know at least one person who swears by taking a daily multivitamin — or you take one yourself.

About a third of U.S. adults reported taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement in the past month at the time they were asked, according to data from 2017 through March 2020 collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly a quarter of U.S. teens and children, ages 19 and under, took a multivitamin within that same time period.

While there’s typically no harm in adding the supplement to your diet, if you’re a generally healthy adult, it also wouldn’t hurt if you didn’t take a multivitamin, says Dr. Elizabeth Ko, an internist and medical director of the UCLA Health Integrative Medicine Collaborative.

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“The concern I see is that people see a multivitamin as a ‘cheat pill’ which then gives them permission to be less strict with their nutrition patterns. It’s not a crutch,” Ko tells CNBC Make It.

Multivitamins can be taken in several different forms including gummies, capsules and even liquids, which are growing in popularity. The search term “liquid multivitamins reviews” has 6 million views on TikTok.

But here’s what Ko suggests doing instead of buying multivitamins, if you’re generally in good health.

More important than taking a multivitamin, Ko says, is ensuring that you’re eating the right foods and getting those vitamins in your diet naturally. Multivitamins typically include vitamins A, B complex, C, D, and E, and in some cases minerals like magnesium and zinc.

“For the generally healthy adult, my advice is to focus on a whole foods, plant-predominant, Mediterranean-style eating pattern,” Ko says. “This approach, rich in phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, should provide most, if not all, of the necessary nutrients.”

Adhering to a Mediterranean diet means prioritizing whole grains, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables. This way of eating also focuses on limiting certain foods like red meat, processed foods and sweets.

Ko’s suggestion is backed by research: Following a Mediterranean diet has been linked to a reduction in the likelihood of developing conditions like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Research also shows there isn’t a strong benefit in taking a multivitamin for generally healthy individuals. A JAMA study published in 2022 that reviewed more than 80 studies and included over 700,000 people found that there was “little or no benefit in preventing cancer, cardiovascular disease, and death” from taking vitamin and mineral supplements, including multivitamins.

“It is important to remember that a multivitamin cannot in any way replace a healthful well-balanced diet,” the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in its hub of nutritional advice, “The Nutrition Source.”

“The main purpose of a multivitamin is to fill in nutritional gaps, and provides only a hint of the vast array of healthful nutrients and chemicals naturally found in food.”

Still, there are some people who may need to consider adding multivitamins to their diet, according to Ko.

“Vegans and vegetarians tend to have dietary patterns that are low in vitamin D, iron [and] vitamin B12.  There simply aren’t many plant-based sources of these nutrients,” she says.

“If these levels are low — they can be tested by blood — then a vegan or vegetarian may benefit from these supplements.”

Additionally, people who experience stomach issues like inflammatory bowel disease, as well as those who have had bariatric surgery or a small bowel resection in the past, may want to talk to their doctor about taking multivitamins as well, Ko notes.

For individuals with nutrient deficiencies, “multivitamins can play an important role when nutritional requirements are not met through diet alone,” according to The Nutrition Source.

But for generally healthy people, “as long as there is a focus on a whole foods, plant-forward, Mediterranean-style diet, then a person should receive all nutrients from food and won’t miss out by not taking a multivitamin,” Ko says.

“However, if those [people] opt to take a multivitamin in order to supplement, rather than replace, a balanced diet, then I don’t see any trouble with this approach.”

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