Multivitamin and multimineral supplements are so common that you’d be hard-pressed not to be able to find one in any health store, supermarket or convenience store. But despite their universal use and availability, there is still some debate about whether multis are worth taking. I for one prescribe multis as a matter of course for many of my clients, for the simple reason that we may not always get all that we require from diet alone.
Do we get all that we need from our diets?
United States Department of Agriculture data shows that some fresh produce may only provide around half the amounts of some vitamins and minerals that they did in the 1950s.1 So, while we have been eating more over time, and taking in more than enough calories and ‘fuel’, we aren’t necessarily getting enough of the ‘little guys’, the vitamins, minerals and secondary nutrients essential to health and performance. Estimates from the New Zealand Ministry of Health ‘NZ Adult Nutrition Survey’ of 2008/2009 suggest that many New Zealanders are not getting the recommended amounts of many of the vitamins and minerals from their diets.2
Some of the key findings included:
- Around 20% of people fail to get sufficient vitamins A (one of our major anti-oxidant vitamins, vital for gene expression, eye health, and cell division), B1 and B6 (both essential for energy creation)
- 8% of people fail to get sufficient B12. B12 is required for the proper functioning of nerve cells and without adequate B12 people can suffer from a form of anemia and ultimately lack of B12 can permanently damage neurons.
- Nearly 10% of women don’t get enough iron. Iron deficiency results in anemia, lethargy, and loss of muscle strength and endurance.
- Around 25% of people don’t consume enough zinc. Zinc is extremely important for immune function and for the creation of testosterone. Interestingly nearly 40% of males may not get adequate zinc from their diet, which could increase the risk of colds, flu and reduce the ability to build muscle.
- 45% of people don’t get enough Selenium, a mineral lacking in New Zealand soils that is vital to thyroid function and metabolic rate.
Other reasons we may be nutritionally deprived
In the modern world, we are beset with stressors, and unlike when we were roaming the savannah 1000s of years ago, we are not always able to simply respond to the stress and then relax. In other words, we are surrounded nowadays by paper tigers that we can’t run away from!
This results in higher levels of residual stress, and this drives a ‘fight or flight’ response within the body that can be very exhausting. We require increased levels of nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc to effectively recover from these stressors.
Through intensive farming and the use of simple NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilisers that may not fully replenish the micronutrients in the soil, our foods are much lower in nutrients than even several decades ago. As a result, we need to ensure a higher nutrient intake.
Many vitamins and fatty acids will begin to break down when exposed to heat, light, and air. This effect increases over time, and with farms now further away from markets there is a greater degradation of food nutrient content. We also consume far too many of the ‘ultra-refined’ foods that are denser in energy and yet far sparser in essential and secondary nutrients than natural, unprocessed foods.
Lack of variety
Many of us don’t always eat that great a variety of foods—especially with respect to vegetables, herbs, and berries. Often, we routinely eat only three or four types of vegetables, many of which have very similar nutrient profiles. Decades ago it was much more common to eat a greater variety of foods due to seasonality, home, and local gardening, and by necessity (if you don’t have a lot of money you eat what’s in the garden!)
I remember that my grandparents would include foods like nasturtium, coltsfoot, hawksbill, and dandelion from out of the garden. Basically, if it was edible, we’d eat it! These foods were and are not only readily available but are extremely nutritious. Packed with B vitamins, potassium, and other nutrients as well as being gently medicinal and cleansing, we now miss out on the benefits of many of these traditional foods.
How could a multi help me?
While a multi is never a substitute for good eating and food always comes first, a multi- can help to provide some of the things that we may habitually, or occasionally lack for optimal health and performance.
Multinutrient formulas appear to improve mortality outcomes for cancer and stroke and provide an overall protective benefit for cancer and heart disease, along with improvements in all-cause mortality.3, 4 They can also reduce perceived stress,5 improve sleep,6 improve memory and cognition.7 Overall, multis are a safe and effective way to ensure a healthy intake of essential and beneficial nutrients.8
BUT not all multis are created equal
To some degree, it’s true that you get what you pay for. To ensure that you are taking a product that will help and not hinder your health and performance make sure that your multi ticks the following boxes:
- Contains all the essential micronutrients—except for iron because up to 20% or more of people may experience sub-clinical iron overload
- Based on whole-food ingredients and extracts that provide additional ‘secondary’ nutrients
- Uses the safest and most effective forms of ingredients
- Doesn’t contain ingredients simply because they are ‘trending’ or popular if they don’t have evidence to support safety and efficacy
1. Davis DR, Epp MD, Riordan HD. Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops, 1950 to 1999. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2004;23(6):669-82.
2. University of Otago and Ministry of Health. A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington; 2011.
3. Huang H-Y, Caballero B, Chang S, Alberg AJ, Semba RD, Schneyer CR, et al. The Efficacy and Safety of Multivitamin and Mineral Supplement Use To Prevent Cancer and Chronic Disease in Adults: A Systematic Review for a National Institutes of Health State-of-the-Science Conference. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2006;145(5):372-85.
4. Alexander DD, Weed DL, Chang ET, Miller PE, Mohamed MA, Elkayam L. A Systematic Review of Multivitamin–Multimineral Use and Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer Incidence and Total Mortality. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2013;32(5):339-54.
5. Macpherson H, Rowsell R, Cox KHM, Scholey A, Pipingas A. Acute mood but not cognitive improvements following administration of a single multivitamin and mineral supplement in healthy women aged 50 and above: a randomised controlled trial. AGE. 2015;37(3):1-10.
6. Sarris J, Cox KHM, Camfield DA, Scholey A, Stough C, Fogg E, et al. Participant experiences from chronic administration of a multivitamin versus placebo on subjective health and wellbeing: a double-blind qualitative analysis of a randomised controlled trial. Nutrition Journal. 2012;11(1):1-10.
7. Harris E, Macpherson H, Vitetta L, Kirk J, Sali A, Pipingas A. Effects of a multivitamin, mineral and herbal supplement on cognition and blood biomarkers in older men: a randomised, placebo-controlled trial. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental. 2012;27(4):370-7.
8. Biesalski HK, Tinz J. Multivitamin/mineral supplements:
rationale and safety – A systematic review. Nutrition.