Last year, a private client of mine gave me the opportunity to look more closely at the best multivitamins.
She wanted to know if she should be taking a multivitamin, and if she should be giving one to her children. Of course, she also wanted to know which brands make the best multivitamins.
I shared my opinion with the Gimme readership back then, and now am pleased to be able to update you guys. What follows is even more research on multivitamins, and a brand new recommendation for the best multivitamin.
RELATED: Best Prenatal Vitamins
Should You Take a Multivitamin?
Here’s the bottom line on multivitamins, in my opinion:
For adults, there is no harm in taking a multivitamin, although possibly not a huge benefit, either. I wouldn’t, however, recommend giving a multivitamin to young children. You’ll read more about why below.
I do recommend that both children and adults take a vitamin D supplement. You should also consider a fish oil supplement if you or your children don’t eat fish.
The Case for (and Against) Multivitamins
Science clearly shows that vitamins and minerals are important to overall health. Studies have also shown, repeatedly, that the best way to get nutrients is from our food.
There is some evidence to suggest that the quality of modern soil and agricultural practices are insufficient to produce food as rich in nutrients as the stuff that our ancient ancestors enjoyed. This makes sense.
Still, most researchers argue that isolating vitamins into pill form vastly reduces or even eliminates the benefits.
The theory that multivitamins and supplements can “fill gaps” in our dietary intake of vitamins and minerals also makes sense. And yet repeated studies have been unable to find any actual health benefits when compared to placebo or non-use.
Despite this lack of clear benefit, many doctors recommend the use of a daily multivitamin. (Of course, if said physician is trying to sell you a bottle of supplements, take her recommendation with a grain of salt.)
The Best Way to Get Your Vitamins
The best way to hit all nutritional checkpoints is by eating a diverse range of vibrantly-colored fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
This is hard to accomplish for a picky child, of course. Many nutrients are lost during the processing of the food most Americans eat. This is just one more reason we should all stick to whole foods whenever possible!
Still, I haven’t come across evidence that taking vitamins has any major downsides for adults, in particular women. There are just two exceptions that I don’t think apply to most of my readers:
- Smokers who take beta carotene have increased risks of lung cancer.
- Folic acid may increase prostate cancer risk.
Excessive doses of vitamin C have also been shown to increase the risk of kidney stones. Most of us get plenty of vitamin C in our diets, so it’s not one that you need much of in a supplement.
What are the Best Multivitamins for Adults?
If you are trying to get nutrients from a pill, it makes sense to get a food-based pill. The less we try to break down vitamins/minerals to the sum of their parts, the more bio-available all the nutrients will be.
I think the best multivitamin for women is by Ritual Essential for Women.
- Ritual’s multivitamin contains half of the number of ingredients of most multivitamins, so you’re not getting unnecessary or excessive amounts of nutrients. For instance, this multi doesn’t include calcium, because most women get plenty from their diets and it can impede the absorption of iron.
- This multi contains a vegan form of vitamin D3, which is much more easily absorbed than D2.
- Ritual uses folate rather than synthetic folic acid.
- This brand is the most transparent of those we reviewed, and has the best third-party testing.
- Ritual’s multivitamin has an enteric coating to improve absorption of nutrients.
- It contains omega-3 oil (a vegan form) in the same pill with the other nutrients.
Should Kids Take a Multivitamin?
Considering how many kids take multivitamins, I was surprised to uncover almost no research on the benefits and risks of this daily habit.
Also, multivitamin brands are not all the same. Each contains a different cocktail of vitamins, and the quantities of each vitamin varies by brand.
When studies are done on “multivitamins,” they don’t seem to take these differences into consideration. Therefore, we really don’t know which combinations of vitamins and minerals carry which benefits or potential risks.
Here’s what studies have shown, though:
- An association between multivitamins before the age of 6 months and increased risk of asthma among black children.
- The same study showed increased levels of food allergies among formula-fed infants who were given multivitamins before the age of 6 months, and increased levels of food allergies amongst 3-year-olds exposed to multivitamins (whether they had been breast- or formula-fed).
- Another recent study found that the nutrients most lacking from the diets of children ages 2 to 8–-namely, calcium and vitamin D–-remained lacking despite multivitamin use. Researchers attribute this to the fact that children’s multis are heavy in the “wrong” nutrients–B vitamins and vitamin C, for instance, both of which kids get from food. Moreover, multivitamin use led to excessive levels of certain nutrients, like iron, zinc, and copper in this study. The effects of this are unknown.
Overall, I think the potential for a downside outweighs the potential benefit of multivitamins for kids under about the age of about 7.
After that, a high-quality multivitamin might be beneficial and probably isn’t harmful. Dr. Mercola’s children’s multivitamin seems to be a good choice.
Two Pills You & Your Kids Probably Should Be Taking
My research left me lukewarm about multivitamins, but I did come away convinced that we all should be taking a couple of supplements:
- Vitamin D. Higher levels of vitamin D are protective against a variety of diseases. Vitamin D also enables calcium absorption, making it critical for growing children.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to get sufficient vitamin D from diet alone (which is why I recommend time outside without sunscreen). Supplementing 400 IU a day for babies and children and 4,000 for adults makes sense, especially because vitamin D carries a low risk for toxicity.
Note that you want to look for D3 and not D2. D2 is not the kind that occurs naturally from sun exposure and can even be toxic at high doses.
I like Carlson as a brand for vitamin D supplements for babies, and this Nordic Naturals one for adults. As for kids, mine love these ones by Rainbow Light, and we do one of those instead of dessert many nights.
- Omega-3s. These fatty acids are crucial for good brain and heart function, and are found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, breastmilk, and some nuts and seeds.
If you and your kids eat fish regularly (even relatively small amounts), you are probably covered. If not, you may want to consider a DHA supplement.
Nordic Naturals Baby’s DHA is a good one, as are the Nordic Naturals supplements for adults. Note that the orange-flavored “Fishies” by Nordic Naturals have low levels of omega-3s and are basically candy.
The only other supplement you might consider is one with B12 if you are a vegan.
What supplements and vitamins do you like? Please share in our comments.
P.S. If you’re pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, you’ll want to read our guide to the Best Prenatal Vitamins.