According to the 2007–2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 49 percent of adults reported using some type of dietary supplement. And of those, about 32 percent specifically claimed to have used multivitamins.
But is nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population achieving any real-world benefits from the use of these supplements and multivitamins? Or, are we collectively throwing our money out the window—and potentially compromising our health in the process?
Here, with the help of professionals, we’ll take an in-depth look at these questions, all aimed at helping empower you as a consumer.
Do You Need to Take Vitamins?
This is a little more complex that it might initially seem, so let’s quickly break it down into two parts:
What Important Role Do Vitamins Play in the Body?
There are currently 13 known vitamins that our body must have in order to keep us alive.
To ensure we’re all on the same page, let’s quickly take a look at each one, along with some of the essential roles they play:
- Vitamin A – Important for vision, immune and organ function, as well as the reproductive system
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamine) – Helps convert carbohydrates into glucose, metabolize fats and protein, and even to reduce stress
- Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin) – Its antioxidant activity may help prevent free radical damage, as well as to produce red blood cells
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin) – Helps make certain hormones, improves circulation, and suppresses inflammation
- Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) – Aids in the process of red blood cell manufacture, digestive tract health and maintenance, and cholesterol synthesis
- Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine) – Helps with neurotransmitter production, brain development and function, homocysteine manufacturing, and vitamin B12 absorption
- Vitamin B7 (Biotin) – Important for the health of skin, hair, the liver, the nervous system, and the growth of an embryo in the womb
- Folic Acid – Aids in cell production and maintenance, and may even prevent DNA changes that can lead to cancer
- Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin) – Plays an important role in healthy nerve and blood cells, prevents tiredness and weakness, and even helps make DNA
- Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) – Aids in tissue growth, repair, and development; helps the body form collagen, absorb iron, heal wounds, and maintain cartilage, bones, and teeth
- Vitamin D – Helps maintain strong bones, allows muscles to move, and is used by the immune system to fight off pathogens
- Vitamin E – Another antioxidant, this also helps boost immune function, widens blood vessels, and prevents the blood inside from clotting
- Vitamin K – Essential for blood clotting and bone health
Clearly, based on the important roles they play, the technical answer to our central question is: Yes; we need to ingest adequate amounts of each of these vitamins in order to be considered ‘healthy’ individuals.
But does this necessarily mean you should run out and purchase a multi-vitamin supplement from your nearest pharmacy? After all, there are entire aisles devoted to them. This brings us to part two of our answer:
Do You Need to Supplement Your Diet With These Vitamins?
When researching both sides of the argument for this article, three of the most common ones I encountered in favor of vitamin supplementation were:
- “The American diet is nutritionally deficient due to all the processed foods we eat,” and
- “Even traditionally healthy foods like fruits and vegetables have less nutritional value than they used to, due to XYZ,” therefore
- “Vitamins and supplements can be used to fill in any of these gaps.”
But do these justifications match the real-world data?
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Second Nutrition Report published in 2012, accounting for differences in race and ethnicity, less than one percent of the U.S. population was deficient in vitamin A, vitamin E, and folate.
Between two and eight percent were deficient in vitamin B12, vitamin C, iron (except for women, at 9.5 percent), and vitamin D, while 10.5 percent of the population was vitamin B6 deficient.
Is this because most of the population eats a balanced diet, rich in the vitamins and minerals we need to optimize health? Not hardly. In fact, 80 percent of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables (which also contain high concentrations of many essential vitamins), while 36 percent of us are obese.
Instead, as Catherine price notes in her 2016 book Vitamania, “Many of us are already taking a multivitamin, in the form of fortified and enriched food.” In other words, only by fortifying many of the foods we consume—such as milk (vitamin D), salt (iodine), bread (niacin), and fruit juice (calcium)—do most of us get the vitamins we need.
But, this also means that the vast majority of us are not vitamin deficient, whether we choose to eat “healthy” or not. So, does this mean you should take a multivitamin?
Whether you’re talking about authoritative sources like the National Institutes of Health, Nutrition.gov, or Harvard Health, none recommend that otherwise healthy people with no nutritional deficiencies take multivitamin supplements.
In her book, Catherine Price also adds to this list “the US Preventive Services Task Force, the American Cancer Association, the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians, among other respected health organizations.”
But, what about other types of supplements, outside the scope of multivitamins? Might they provide some real world benefits?
Do You Need to Take Dietary Supplements?
The reality is that the term ‘supplement’ has grown to encompass thousands more ingredients than the essential 13 vitamins above—many of which further stretch the imagination as to what is considered ‘food.’
In fact, one of the central questions Catherine Price looked to uncover in Vitamania was, “I wanted to know how we, as consumers, have become okay with the idea that vitamin C should exist in the same regulatory category as RIPPED FREAK Hybrid Fat Burner, or capsules filled with ground-up glands.”
Considering this breadth, are there any ingredients or specific supplements that medical professionals recommend taking? As before, let’s break everything down into two distinct questions:
Question 1: Are You Nutritionally Deficient?
Based on what we learned a moment ago, it might not come as a surprise that Dr. Samuel Molloy, Medical Director at DrFelix told us:
“People who are in good health don’t generally need to take vitamin supplements - you can get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs from eating a healthy, balanced diet. Taking too much of any one vitamin or mineral can actually be harmful to the body; I’d only recommend supplements to people who might be deficient in a certain vitamin. It’s best to consult your doctor if you think might be deficient.”
And even if most of us didn’t get these vital nutrients from food, Jennie Ann Freiman, MD, Founder and Product Developer of Oobroo, Inc., notes that, in general, supplements and vitamins are a poor substitute for healthy, whole food because they don’t deliver the same nutritional synergy.
She also pointed out that, while whole foods are perfectly safe to eat, singular, extracted ingredients from these foods can actually be toxic in excessive doses.
That’s why, Jennie says, “scientific studies have found links between vitamin E and increased risk of death/heart failure, folic acid, and increased risk colorectal cancer, etc.”
Similarly, writing for The New York Times, Jane Brody points out that calcium supplementation (versus getting enough from foods like dairy) can cause kidney stones and gastrointestinal problems, fish oil may increase the risk of prostate cancer, and magnesium can lead to diarrhea and interfere with medications like antibiotics and diuretics.
Finally, Jennie told us that “Most vitamins and supplements contain fillers, binders, excipients and other inactive, often toxic, ingredients, which are used to shape and color the product, speed up production and save money, etc. These additives have no nutritional value [and] add junk to something that is supposed to promote health.”
Given these caveats, how can you figure out if you’re deficient before wasting money or potentially negatively impacting your health?
Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, and author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women’s Health, notes that your doctor might recommend “blood testing, urine and stool testing, red blood cell testing, or a variety of mineral testing,” depending on your signs and symptoms.
Jessica Crandall, Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that other great ways of assessing any potential deficiencies include:
"Going beyond the dietary analysis, looking at a comprehensive evaluation including medical, social, food, nutrition-related history, anthropometric measurements, biochemical data, medical testing procedures and nutrition focused physical exams.”
Other than those who are deficient, are there any other groups that might be in need of dietary supplementation?
Question 2: What About the Vitamin & Dietary Needs of Athletes?
Another common argument made in favor of supplementation is that athletes’ bodies tend to use more vitamins and nutrients than the general population, which therefore need to be recouped using outside sources.
And this seems to hold some weight (no pun intended), depending on which ingredients you’re talking about.
For example, Dr. Samuel Molloy notes that “Some people, like bodybuilders and athletes, may see their performance improve as a result of taking a supplement like protein or nitric oxide. That’s because they help the body create more of the amino acids needed to repair damaged muscle tissue after a workout, accelerating the muscle building process.”
Jessica Crandall mirrored the protein recommendation but emphasized “Protein is a nutrient need for all humans, no matter their activity level. However, the range that you need may vary based on gender, age, weight, and activity goals.”
Next, “quality nitric oxide supplement can certainly help anyone who has issues with circulation, [since it can help] blood flow and oxygen to the skeletal muscle and to facilitate the removal of exercise-induced lactic acid build-up, which reduces fatigue and recovery time,” Carolyn Dean adds.
She also notes that, even if you’re not an athlete, “magnesium is a good all around supplement because it is necessary for the enzymes that digest food,” something to which Rita Ayoub, a pharmacist in Sydney, Australia, agrees:
“Some magnesium supplements show good promise in use before and after exercise to minimize cramping, as well as for preventing headaches and migraines, and for mood control, as well as for a better night's sleep.”
However, she emphasizes: “Magnesium is manufactured in different types of salts and is often included in some exercise protein formulas. These salts have different properties, and some are better absorbed than others depending on your needs. So always seek professional advice about which one best suits you.”
Where does all of this leave us?
Questions to Ask Before Taking Vitamins and Dietary Supplements
Returning again to Vitamania, Catherine Price emphasizes that, “America’s leading health organizations repeat “if the healthiest doses of vitamins and other micronutrients appear to be those found in food—and if food contains other chemicals that are likely beneficial to our health—then we should stop taking pills and just eat food.”
In short, while supplements and multivitamins can technically ‘work,’ the majority of experts we spoke with indicated that, for otherwise healthy individuals, “supplementation” is really all about eating a balanced diet of nutritionally dense foods—not necessarily spending money for pills or powders.
On the other, while food should always be your first source, Jessica Crandall points out that “supplementation can be used to meet your goal if food is not an option, or if you are having a hard time reaching your goal”—but only after looking for “potential deficiencies and analyzing someone’s diet.”
In other words, if you’re still thinking about picking up a dietary supplement, talk with your doctor first to identify if you’re deficient.
But before you even show up to your appointment, Catherine Price recommends:
“The best advice about supplements, however, is less practical than it is philosophical. Before you pick up a box or bottle, ask yourself:
- Why, exactly, you’re buying it?
- What do you think it will do?
- What evidence do you have for your beliefs?
- What are its known side effects and interactions?
- Is there a chance that it might do more harm than good?”
Looking for more down-to-earth tips on purchasing a quality supplement or multivitamin? Be sure to read The History of Dietary Supplements.