I often get asked about the utility of vitamin & mineral supplements and whether or not they are necessary for good health.
The answer to this question is both gender and context dependent.
First and foremost, there is so much more to healthy living than just hitting your vitamin and mineral requirements.
Obviously, achieving adequacy in your vitamin and mineral intake is a cornerstone of good health but food offers you much, much more than just that.
A multivitamin cannot come close to replicating the potency and utility that whole foods, and the compounds they contain, offer to our body.
Now, with that being said, the answer to this question does have a few layers that you should be aware of.
Let’s peel them back:
For the average healthy male, A multivitamin pretty much never makes sense from my perspective….
Because if you are falling short in enough vitamins/minerals to justify a multivitamin ( exceptional medical cases excluded), a supplement is actually the last thing you need. Rather, what you require is a thorough review and reconsideration of your dietary pattern.
The exception to this rule might be those very few people who are on medically enforced very low calorie diets and may struggle to get sufficient vitamins/minerals at their calorie level.
For anyone else, using a multivitamin to cover a poor or limited dietary pattern is a perilous strategy.
If you are a male who is already eating in a balanced, inclusive manner, you certainly do not need a multivitamin. Consuming vitamins/minerals beyond the recommended levels does not provide you extra protection and could, in fact, be harmful.
Why does this apply primarily to men? ( Women are from Venus)
Given the rate at which unplanned pregnancies occur, Health Canada advises that women of child bearing age ( ie: any woman who can become pregnant) should take a multivitamin containing 0.4 mg of folic acid daily. This , in combination with a strong diet, will help prevent neural tube defects which can occur during the first month of pregnancy ( thus why you must have adequate folate consumption prior to conception).
At the bare minimum, on Health Canada’s urging, you should begin supplementation no later than 3 months before pregnancy.
Individual vitamin and mineral supplements may make sense if…
There are certain types , or whole groups, of foods that you just cannot consume for physiological , religious or personal reasons or if you have been prescribed a particular supplement by a medical professional based on a medical diagnosis ( as in iron deficiency anemia, for example).
If your nutrient inadequacy truly cannot be addressed through dietary measures, I fully appreciated and support the use of a single vitamin or mineral supplement to help address that inadequacy.
If you find yourself taking multiple single vitamin or single mineral supplements, that is a clear sign that it may be time to re-consider the quality of your diet.
Let’s take a look at a few case examples:
Vitamin B12 in Vegans -> An example of where this may arise is in veganism as it relates to vitamin B12. For vegans, the only plausible food sources of vitamin B12 are nutritional yeast or fortified foods such as soy milk. If neither of these foods are on your menu, supplementation of B12 makes logical sense.
People who don’t consume dairy ->In a less clear cut case, should all those who do not consume dairy supplement calcium? This depends. Dairy consumption is not required for adequate calcium consumption. Calcium can be attained from dairy alternatives ( fortified soy/almond milk), legumes, nuts/seeds and leafy greens. If your diet is rich is in those foods, and I would prefer it to be, calcium supplementation is unnecessary.
Vitamin D in Everyone -> Health Canada recommends everyone over the age of 50 to supplement 400 IU of Vitamin D daily. Our bodies create vitamin D from the sun, but it can be a challenge for many of us to consume adequate vitamin D from our diets alone because it is found in so few foods. If you don’t consume fish, eggs and milk ( or milk alternatives), you might consider supplementing Vitamin D.
For the record, the majority of nutrient inadequacies in our population can be remedied by increasing our consumption of a few specific nutrient foods. If you want a better idea of what those foods are, please take a look at my article on the 9 foods you need to balance your diet.
Unless you have a medical indication to the contrary, acquiring nutrients from your diet should always, always, always be the first resort when addressing inadequacies.
I hope I’ve made that point clear and that today’s article has provided some insight into the limited utility of supplements ( especially multivitamins) , especially for the otherwise healthy male.
Until next time,
Andy De Santis RD MPH