Two out of three Australians regularly use complementary medicines to improve their health. I imagine most people have at least one multivitamin in their medicine cabinet. Isn’t it funny though, that four out of five Australians still don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables?
Getting enough vitamins and minerals is essential for good health. But, it certainly isn’t the whole story. Healthy eating is much more than what you can get from a pill or powder.
A multivitamin can’t replace a good diet
For most people, taking a daily multivitamin is a little insurance policy against the seemingly difficult to maintain healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, for most people, a multivitamin is going to do very little.
As well as vitamins and minerals, wholefoods offer powerful compounds like phytochemicals, fibre, pre and probiotics, that help us to not only ward off disease and deficiencies but help us to live long and well. So for most people, I don’t recommend a multivitamin, I recommend better quality wholefoods included in the diet, more often. If a client needs a supplement, a more specific and better quality product will be used than the low dose multivitamins that you see advertised on TV.
There is no evidence to suggest that people who take a multivitamin every day have better health, but we do know that people who eat more whole plant foods (like fruit, vegetables and wholegrains) and less processed foods (like junk food) do. So it would make much more sense to invest your time and money into eat better than popping pills. If you’re eating well (a wide and varied diet with plenty of plant foods – mostly unprocessed) then you won’t even need one.
Taking a multivitamin can be risky
Many multivitamins are cheaply made with only small amounts of the vitamins and minerals listed and price does seem to reflect quality. Most multivitamins don’t contain high enough doses of any nutrient to cause harm, in fact, many of the water-soluble nutrients are going to quite literally end up in the toilet if you didn’t need or couldn’t absorb them. If you’ve ever wondered why your urine is bright yellow after taking a multivitamin, it’s all the Vitamin B2 you didn’t actually need.
Fat soluble vitamins and minerals are stored for later use though, so if you get enough in your diet AND take a supplement, this could potentially lead to a build up and toxicity. Some vitamins and minerals can interact with prescribed medications, even at seemingly low doses
This is also why it’s always important to tell health practitioners if you are taking any supplements (including the multivitamins you only remember to take sometimes) when they ask if you are taking any other medications.
If you do you have a deficiency or are at risk…
Food is always the first line of defense against nutritional deficiencies. Nutrients are more potent and better absorbed when they come from food (and most interestingly, from food that is enjoyed!). However, if you can’t eat some foods or you have a medically diagnosed deficiency, then a more specific supplement may required. Always talk to your GP before you start taking a supplement and mention it next time you visit if you are already taking one.
Iron Deficiency Anaemia: Iron
Dietary sources of iron include red meat, chicken, fish, tofu, legumes, wholegrains, leafy greens and dried fruits. There are two dietary types of iron: haem which we get from animal sources and non-haem which we get from plants. Non-haem iron is found in smaller amounts and isn’t as easily absorbed. So even vegetarians and vegans that have a balanced diet could be at risk of anaemia if they have high needs or aren’t good at absorbing it. Some meat-eating women just aren’t able to get enough out of their diets either – so a supplement is required to treat or prevent iron deficiency anaemia. Besides making you feel tired and run down, anaemia can decrease your immunity and lead to heart and lung conditions. You can increase the amount of non-haem iron you absorb from plant foods by including vitamin C rich foods with each meal (like citrus fruit and capsicum) and by avoiding drinking tea within an hour of eating.
Vegans: Vitamin B12
The only available sources of B12 for vegans are nutritional yeast or fortified soy products like soy milk and tofu. It’s not naturally occurring though – so check the labels to see if it has been added. B12 deficiency can lead to depression and anxiety, nerve damage, infertility, vision loss and heart failure.
If you’re pregnant or TTC: Folic Acid
Women who pregnant, trying to or considering trying to conceive should take at minimum a folic acid supplement. Ideally, a good quality pregnancy supplement which includes iron and folic acid. Folic acid (which comes from supplements and folate when it comes from food) has been found to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in babies and so supplements are HIGHLY recommended. You may have wondered why all women of child bearing age are recommended to have a supplement – it’s just because surprises happen and it’s a relatively small investment for a great deal of protection.Vegans: Vitamin B12
If you’re a woman over 50: Vitamin D + Calcium
Women approaching menopause may benefit from a Vitamin D and calcium supplement to prevent osteoporosis. We get very little Vitamin D from food, instead, it is produced by the skin from UV exposure. People who don’t get enough sun exposure or exercise, those who are obese or take certain medications are at risk of deficiency.
I want to take one
- Avoid any that contain 100% of the recommended daily doses
- Avoid buying any that are near expiry or look like they may not have been handled or stored correctly
- Choose one based on your needs (your gender and age or specific requirement) and chat to your GP, dietitian, nutritionist first
- Remember that there is no substitute for a varied and healthy diet.
For most people in our community, nutrition deficiencies and poor health can be remedied just by eating better. I recommend that you don’t bother taking a multivitamin. Invest your time, energy and cash on eating more home-cooked wholefoods, every day. If you do have a specific mineral or vitamin deficiency or are at risk of one, you’re much better off taking a more specific, quality supplement. Talk to your GP or nutrition practitioner for a recommendation.
In Australia, all medicines and supplements are labelled “AUST R” if they have been Registered and have enough scientific evidence to say they do what they are described to do. They’re sold by pharmacists or registered nutrition practitioners and currently only some brands of iron and folic acid supplements carry this label (they’ll be behind the counter). Anything else labelled “AUST L” means it is just listed and is only assessed for safety and minimum quality standards – but not whether it works or not.
Sarah Moore is a Registered Nutritionist in Perth, Western Australia. She offers private consultations, meal plans and dietary analyses to empower you to take charge of your health and wellness.