Deficiencies in essential nutrients have dramatically decreased over the past century (thanks, science). That could be because half of all American adults take a multivitamin or another vitamin or mineral supplement regularly. The benefits of taking a multivitamin are hard to deny, considering the fact that otherwise—unless you always eat a perfect diet—you’re likely falling short on one or more nutrients.
Case in point: Nearly 95 percent of the U.S. population does not meet the recommended daily requirement of vitamin D, and about half of American adults have one or more preventable chronic diseases, many of which are related to poor quality eating patterns. These diseases include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and poor bone health.
This data comes from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), which does an assessment of U.S. health and dietary habits every five years to determine areas of potential public health concern. The ODPHP uses their findings to create our national Dietary Guidelines, and also to flush out any so-called “nutrients of concern.” And they always find a few that are common deficiencies among Americans.
If you’re not familiar with nutrients of concern, take a quick look at any food label. They’re the four nutrients listed below the usual suspects (calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate, protein) and separated by a thicker black bar.
Until recently, they included vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium. But the latest assessment (2015 to 2020) recognized vitamin D and potassium as new nutrients of concern, and so they were added to the list in place of vitamins A and C. (Food manufacturers have until January 1, 2020, to update their labels, though many have already begun.) One of the major benefits of taking a multivitamin? They pack plenty of those key nutrients into one supplement.
How to Tell If You’re Falling Short on Nutrients
Start by honestly assessing your usual eating patterns to determine if they’re of good quality. Remember: Evidence shows that consistently good quality eating patterns are strongly associated with positive health outcomes such as reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, overweight, and more.
To find out how your habits stack up and whether you could gain from the benefits of taking a multivitamin, consider the key recommendations from the ODPHP, below, as a personal checklist.
A healthy eating pattern includes:
- A variety of vegetables, including legumes (beans and peas)
- Fruits, especially whole ones
- Grains, at least half of which are whole
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy
- A variety of protein sources (seafood, lean meats, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy)
- Limited saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium
If your diet doesn’t check all of those boxes consistently, you’re probably in the same boat as the many Americans who are not getting enough vitamin D, potassium, iron, and calcium. It’s also important to consider what you’re omitting from your diet by following certain restricted eating plans. For instance, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, not only are vitamin D, iron, and calcium on your nutrients-of-concern list, so are omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, zinc, and iodine.
What Are the Actual Benefits of Taking a Multivitamin?
Multivitamins can provide great nutritional backup to an imperfect diet—which, again, is more the rule than the exception. Even so, I always recommend starting with real food first, because following good quality eating patterns to hit your nutritional goals means it’s extremely unlikely you’re wasting calories on processed foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats that aren’t doing you any favors. One of the benefits of taking a multivitamin, though, is that it can help fill in the gaps in your diet if you aren't quite getting enough of what you need.
Here is a breakdown of the nutrients of concern, why we need them for optimal health and wellness, and how you can get them through real foods whenever you are able to go that route.
Vitamin D Benefits
- Lessens inflammation
- Boosts immune responses
- Regulates growth of cells
- Supports healthy bone repair and growth
Natural sources include fatty fish (such as canned salmon and tuna), mushrooms exposed to UV rays (chanterelle, maitake, shiitake, portabella), fortified milks and nondairy alternatives, and egg yolks
- Provides a building block for bones
- Helps hormone balance
- Plays a role in nerve signaling
- Maintains healthy blood flow
- Promotes muscle contraction
Natural sources include dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), leafy greens (collards, broccoli, kale, bok choy), beans and other legumes, salmon, sardines
- Helps maintain heartbeat
- Assists in muscle contraction
- Promotes nerve signaling
- Lessens the action of sodium on blood pressure
- Regulates pH, water, and electrolyte levels in the blood
Natural sources include white beans, tomatoes, figs, dates, apricots, avocados, spinach, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, mushrooms, coconut water, dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), salmon
- Helps red blood cells make hemoglobin, which transports oxygen throughout the body
- Supports cellular energy production
- Helps removed carbon dioxide from the body
- Necessary for infant brain development and growth
Natural sources include beans, peas, dark green vegetables, prunes, raisins, whole grains, fortified/ enriched breads and cereals
The Bottom Line
Does everyone need a multivitamin? In a perfect world, no. But many people do not live in a perfect world where they are getting a rainbow of colors of fruits and vegetables in week, in the recommended quantities. I like to see multivitamins as a safety net, catching any missed nutrients that we didn’t get through our foods. Consider it “insurance” for your health.