A private client of mine recently gave me the opportunity to look more closely into the issue of multivitamins. She wanted to know if she should be taking a multi, if she should be giving one to her children, and if so, which brands were made the best multivitamins.
After a bunch of research, I’m so happy to have an answer for her and for myself, and thought I would share my thoughts on this with my readers.
Here’s the bottom line on the best 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, for reasons I will outline below. That said, I do recommend that children and adults both take a vitamin D supplement, as well as a fish oil supplement if they don’t eat fish.
Are There Real Reasons to Take a Multivitamin?
Science clearly shows that vitamins and minerals themselves are important to overall health, but it has also shown, repeatedly, that the best way to get them 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, but most researchers also feel that isolating vitamins into pill form reduces or eliminates the benefits.
The theory that multivitamins and supplements can “fill gaps” in our dietary intake of vitamins and minerals also makes sense, but repeated studies seem 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 multivitamin (although many of them sell vitamins/supplements themselves so it’s hard to completely trust their opinions).
The best way to hit all nutritional checkpoints through diet is by eating a diverse range of vibrantly colored fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. This is hard to do with a picky child (which both of mine are, much to my dismay). Many nutrients are lost during the processing of the food most Americans eat—so it’s just another good reason to stick to whole foods.
All this said, I haven’t come across evidence that taking vitamins has any major downsides for adults, with a few exceptions that I don’t think apply to most of my readers (smokers who take beta carotene, for instance, have increased risks of lung cancer, and folic acid may increase prostate cancer risk).
You can take toxic doses of vitamins—in particular A, E, and K, so it’s best to make sure that any supplement you take has less than 100% of your daily value for these three. Excessive doses of vitamin C have also been shown to increase the risk of kidney stones, and considering how much C most of us get in our diets, it’s not one that you need much of in a supplement.
Which 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.
In terms of specific brands, I would recommend Rainbow Light Women’s One or Mega Food Women’s One Daily. Note that these have 990 and 420 IU of vitamin D, respectively, so you probably should add an additional vitamin D supplement, as most experts recommend much more than this (more on vitamin D in a minute).
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 also vary by brand. When studies are done on “multivitamins,” they don’t seem to take these differences into consideration—meaning 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 only).
- 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 seem to get plenty of from the foods they eat. Moreover, multivitamin use led to excessive levels of certain nutrients, like iron, zinc, and copper in this study, and 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
Although my research lead me to feel pretty lukewarm about multivitamins, 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, and vitamin D 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 infants, 600 for toddlers and children, and 4,000 for adults makes sense, especially because vitamin D also carries with it a low risk for toxicity. Note that you want D3, 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 kids, and this Nordic Naturals one for adults.
- 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.