Multivitamins are generally safe, cost-effective, can be tailored to your age, sex, and reproductive status, and may have more nutrient synergy than individual vitamins.
However, the predetermined levels of multivitamins may make it difficult to target the specific nutrients that you need less or more of.
Individual vitamins can target a specific nutrient deficiency and are generally safe.
Individual vitamins can be more cumbersome and expensive, and they have lower nutrient synergy.
Multivitamin research is mixed, but multivitamins do increase the levels of micronutrients in those who are nutrient-depleted and those at risk of nutrient inadequacy.
Taking a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins depends on your overall goal and personal need.
Research around dietary supplements like multivitamins can be confusing. On the one hand, we’re told multivitamins don’t prevent chronic diseases, so they’re a waste of money. On the other hand, some providers recommend a daily multivitamin as added insurance for overall health. Individual vitamins are just as confusing. Some recommend taking high doses of single nutrients, while others don’t agree. So, should you take a multivitamin or individual vitamins, and is one better than the other?
While we don’t suffer from many all-out micronutrient deficiencies in the United States, we do have an epidemic of micronutrient inadequacy. Not taking in adequate amounts of important nutrients like vitamins C and D, and magnesium can contribute to symptoms like fatigue, poor immune system function, reduced attention span, and memory problems, but may also lead to long-term health consequences and chronic diseases .
Of course, obtaining nutrients from a whole-foods, healthy diet is optimal, but many of us aren’t eating well whether it be from time constraints, difficult work-life balance, lack of convenient healthy options, accessibility, and/or confusion about what foods are actually healthy .
In this article, I’ll outline the facts about multivitamins and share the top nutrients Americans are lacking, along with their recommended intakes. I’ll also compare multivitamins vs. individual vitamins in terms of dose, provide a list of pros and cons for each, and share a checklist to help you determine if you may need these types of supplements.
Multivitamins vs. Individual Vitamins: Pros and Cons
Before we get into the research on multivitamins, here’s an overview of the pros and cons of taking a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins:
Can help you meet basic nutrient requirements
Generally safe if not above your recommended limits
Can choose a formulation based on your age, sex, and pregnancy status
Nutrient synergy may be higher
Doesn’t allow for personalization
Potential for excess
May not contain enough of a certain nutrient you need
Can be tailored to your specific needs
Generally safe if not above your recommended limits
Can be cumbersome and expensive if taking many individual vitamins
Possibility for toxicity
Nutrient synergy may be lower
While both may have a place and time, taking a multivitamin or individual vitamins really depends on your overall goal and personal need.
I would recommend multivitamins if…
You are unable to eat a balanced diet most of the time;
You have a gastrointestinal condition you’re working on healing, and/or;
You have increased nutrient needs like during pregnancy.
I would recommend individual vitamins if…
You’re looking to target a specific nutrient deficiency.
Are Multivitamins Beneficial?
While the research on just how effective multivitamins are really is mixed, they do offer benefits for some people. They’re also affordable and convenient, so they’re worth a try if you feel you’re not meeting your daily needs with diet alone. Multivitamin supplements have been shown to improve the levels of micronutrients in people with nutrient-poor diets and in those at risk of nutrient inadequacy [3, 4, 5]. And other trials have found daily multivitamin/mineral use to:
Protect against hip fractures in those with osteoporosis .
Possibly lower blood pressure in people with chronic diseases .
Improve intractable (hard to control) dry eye syndrome .
But a 2020 literature review found vitamin and mineral supplements don’t reduce the prevalence of nutrient inadequacy for most nutrients and can increase your risk of taking excessive amounts of some nutrients . And a 2018 consensus report of health experts found insufficient evidence to show that multivitamins prevent chronic medical conditions like heart disease .
It’s important to note that while some research trials don’t support the use of vitamin, mineral, or fish oil (omega-3) supplements for lowering disease risk, multivitamins seem to be helpful for a variety of conditions. In addition, no two randomized controlled trials have used the same multivitamin combination, so it’s hard to say definitively that these supplements have no benefit [11, 12].
Let’s take a look at a few of the most commonly used vitamin and mineral supplements in the U.S. and compare the amount required vs. the amount contained in a multivitamin.
Popular Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Here’s a chart of the most common types of vitamin and mineral supplements taken by U.S. adults including the required daily amount, what you’ll find in a common multivitamin, and good food sources of each:
Most common types of vitamin and mineral supplements consumed by U.S. adults, 2017–2018.
As you can see, multivitamins usually exceed the required amount of vitamin B12 but may fall short when it comes to calcium and vitamin C. The vitamin D3 contained in a multivitamin may seem to be adequate as it exceeds the required amount, but as I discuss in Healthy Gut, Healthy You, the requirement for vitamin D is likely greater than the current recommendation.
Many people in the U.S. suffer from micronutrient inadequacies often related to a high-calorie, nutrient-poor diet that lacks fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products . Let’s review the top nutrient inadequacies for Americans and compare a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins in terms of the amount based on requirement.
Nutrients of Concern for Americans
Micronutrient inadequacies are quite common in the United States partly due to the popularity and availability of highly-processed foods, lack of access to wholesome foods, and poor soil quality . While all-out nutrient deficiencies can contribute to infections and serious illnesses, inadequate nutrient intake over time tends to cause more covert illnesses or symptoms like fatigue, poor immune system function, and cognitive difficulty. Eventually, these insufficiencies may contribute to chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes .
The most problematic nutrients (along with the percentage of Americans not meeting the recommended amount) include [1, 18]:
Check out the following chart that lays out the required amount of each nutrient, the amount found in a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins, and good food sources for each:
Common nutrients that are inadequate in the Western diet.
*Most people get enough B vitamins, copper, iron, phosphorus, selenium, sodium, and zinc .
There are several groups of people who are more at risk of micronutrient deficiency [5, 20]:
Pregnant and breastfeeding women
Adult women who are menstruating
Non-Hispanic black people
Those experiencing low socioeconomic status
It’s important to know how many nutrients you’re getting in your diet before you add multivitamins or individual vitamins. Let’s look at how to determine if you actually need these types of supplements.
When To Take Multivitamins and Individual Vitamins
How do you know if you need to be taking a multivitamin or individual vitamins? The best way to determine if you’re reaching nutrient targets is to keep a food journal and then use a food composition database to compare what you’re averaging in your diet versus what’s recommended for your age, sex, and health status [21, 22, 23]. This process is somewhat involved, but fortunately, there are simple food journal apps (like Lifesum, Cronometer, or MyPlate) that will calculate your daily totals for you and give you an idea if you’re getting enough vitamins (and minerals) based on the personal information you’ve entered. You can then use that data to adjust your diet or decide if you would benefit from a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins.
In general, if you eat a whole-foods diet, like Mediterranean or Paleo, with a lot of variety there’s probably no reason to take a multivitamin [4, 5, 11]. Even if you’re consuming this type of diet, you may be able to increase your nutrient intake by changing the way you prepare and store foods, which can impact their nutrient density . However, if you’re in one of the groups at higher risk of micronutrient inadequacy or you meet any of the following scenarios, you may want to discuss taking a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins with your healthcare provider [3, 4, 5, 16, 20]:
You have a poor appetite and are eating less than usual .
You’re on a restricted diet for more than a week .
You have a gastrointestinal condition or have had surgery that limits your ability to absorb nutrients .
Your nutrient needs are temporarily increased (pregnancy, lactation, menstruation) [16, 27].
You’re too busy to eat a well-balanced diet on a daily basis [4, 5, 11].
You take a prescription medication that depletes nutrient levels or creates a vitamin deficiency [4, 5, 11].
You eat well but have a condition (osteoporosis or anemia for example) that increases your requirement of a specific vitamin or nutrient [4, 5, 11].
What is Nutrient Synergy?
Before adding vitamin supplements, it’s important to understand the concept of nutrient synergy and why whole foods are the preferred way to obtain nutrients.
Nutrient synergy refers to the biological and chemical interplay between nutrients. In other words, when you eat a whole food, the nutrients contained within that food work together to enhance digestion and absorption, and make it easier for them to carry out their biological functions in your body. Research suggests that the nutrient synergy in whole foods has stronger health benefits than consuming nutrients in supplement form [28, 29].
When it comes to nutrient synergy in a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins, multivitamins may be better absorbed into the circulation (bioavailable) [28, 29].
While you may be missing out on maximum nutrient synergy when taking nutrients in supplement form, this doesn’t mean multivitamins and individual vitamin supplements have no usefulness. These types of supplements can be very helpful in cases of nutrient inadequacy and deficiency .
Multivitamins vs. Individual Vitamins: The Bottom Line
Eating a whole-foods diet is best for optimizing nutrient synergy and meeting your nutrient needs. But many Americans aren’t consuming adequate amounts of nutrients in their diets due to a variety of factors and there are some groups like pregnant and breastfeeding women who have increased nutrient needs. If you can’t obtain a wide variety of nutrients from your diet, a multivitamin may help you get the nutrients you need to maintain good health and prevent health consequences .
Whether you should take a multivitamin vs. individual vitamins really depends on your overall goal. Multivitamins can help you meet your nutrient targets by filling the gaps left from your diet and they’re also cost effective. But multivitamins may not deliver the amount of a particular nutrient you need, so that’s when an individual vitamin may be more appropriate.
If you’re taking a multivitamin or individual vitamins, it’s important to know how much you’re taking versus how much your body needs and how much you’re already getting in your diet. This is where temporarily keeping a food journal and comparing your daily average to your requirement can be helpful. It’s also worth noting that many products duplicate nutrients, so if you’re taking multiple products or individual vitamin supplements you could be getting excessive amounts of some nutrients.
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