The human body requires vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. That’s why humans evolved on a (predominantly) animal-based diet that supplies those essential micronutrients. Yet, 68% of Americans take vitamin supplements.
Arguably, because they think multivitamin supplements have health benefits or reduce the risk of illnesses, such as heart disease.
Additionally, some people believe that they can’t get enough vitamins from regular food. But is that true; do we really need dietary supplements to stay healthy?
Before we dive into the subject, I have to admit that I, too, have been supplementing with multivitamins. But lately, I have been thinking about if that’s really necessary and I started doing some research.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to that question. As is so often the case, the truth depends on numerous factors, including your:
- Overall health
- Dietary habits
- Gender and age
- Where you live
What we know about minerals and vitamins
The world of dietary guidelines and healthy eating is filled with a lot of misleading information. Manufacturers make billions of dollars with vitamin or mineral pills (see below), and so it is in their best interest to sell more. Independently verified information is often hard to come by, and facts are often mixed with fiction to promote individual products.
For example, manufacturers of Vitamin D supplements often claimed their products could reduce the risk of certain types of cancer (i.e., prostate cancer) and cardiovascular disease.
Yet, a recent nationwide, randomized, placebo-controlled trial with 25,871 participants concluded that Vitamin D supplementation did not decrease the likelihood of developing such illnesses.
Have you ever noticed the health claims on most vitamin supplements that have a * referring to small print saying that “this statement has not been verified by the FDA?”
But there are a few things that we know for sure and that we can consider scientific facts. For example, it is a fact that the human body needs certain vitamins and minerals to function correctly. Much like essential fatty acids or amino acids, the body cannot make them, and so they have to come from the food you eat.
As a result, your diet plays a significant factor in how well you satisfy your body’s vitamin requirements. But how much micronutrients do we need daily?
How much do we need?
Here in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets all nutrition recommendations. You might have read such terms as Reference Daily Intake (RDI), Daily Value (DV), Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) on food and supplement labels.
Those numbers, often expressed in milligrams or micrograms, tell you how much of a given vitamin or mineral your body needs daily to function, based on the opinion of the U.S. Government.
How much do we really need?
Frankly, I don’t trust those recommendations for numerous reasons, including the significant influence of industry lobbyists on politicians who decide on the contents of those guidelines.
I remember when I was a kid, the Austrian government pushed dairy, and, specifically milk as an excellent, and the most important source of calcium, to prop up the farmer industry. Funny enough, for most of human history (2.6 million years), we did not have access to dairy until we started domesticating animals about 10,000 years ago.
So what did our ancestors eat and drink to get their calcium? Plus, we know that humans lose the ability to break down lactose via an enzyme called lactase early in childhood, typically after weaning from the breast.
So evidently, humans are genetically not made to thrive on dairy. Yet, many governments push dairy as the primary source of calcium.
I recently talked to the registered dietitian of our son who was born prematurely. She had issues with the fact that our kids don’t drink milk to meet their daily calcium requirements. When I pushed her on the evolutionary angle of that issue, she could not explain how kids, who lived 20,000 ago, met their daily recommended intake in calcium without having access to milk.
Then I asked her if she drank 4 glasses of milk every day to meet her calcium requirements? Her response was: “No, I’m taking a mineral supplement.”
I was shocked by that answer and the prospect that we, as a society, have been programmed into thinking that we can’t get the essential nutrients our bodies need from a healthy and balanced diet.
Besides that this doesn’t add up from an evolutionary perspective, nobody in my family appears to have nutrient deficiencies or suffer from any apparent consequences, like osteoporosis.
Fun fact: Observational studies report that osteoporosis and hip fractures are more prevalent in countries with higher calcium intake. Scientists call that the calcium paradox.
What that tells me is that the daily recommended values might or might not reflect what our bodies need.
Should I stop taking vitamin supplements then?
Just because we don’t know how much vitamins and minerals we need and how much we are getting from food, doesn’t mean we should ignore the fact that we might be short on some micronutrients.
Our goal should be to get most of the nutrients our body needs to stay healthy from fresh, wholesome sources of food. That’s one of the reasons why my wife and I aim to buy organic and seasonal vegetables and fruits, grass-fed meat, and pasture raised eggs.
However, there are two major risk factors with relying on getting sufficient micronutrients from food:
- Food has become less nutrient-dense over the past few decades,
- Not everyone can afford buying grass-fed, pastured, and organic food.
Has food become less nutrient-dense?
Additional factors that contribute to food having become less nutrients-dense include:
- Soil depletion
- Cultivar selection
- Hybrid varieties
- High yield practices
- Pesticides and herbicides
Moreover, the way we prepare (cook) food can also influence how much nutrients the food retains until it reaches our plates. For example, many nutrients are sensitive to heat, water, or fat and degrade during boiling, frying or baking.
So overall, we have seen that food has become less nutritious than it used to be.
Eating healthy is expensive!
You probably know that buying grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, and organic fruits and vegetables is expensive. Since we started on the Paleo diet, our monthly grocery bill has gone up measurably, and we couldn’t help but conclude: Eating healthy is expensive!
So what do you do if buying groceries at Whole Foods isn’t in your budget or if you don’t have time to prepare three fresh meals a day for the whole family?
I have written about the latter issue before when reviewing healthy meal replacement drinks and Paleo meal delivery services. If neither of these options is feasible for you, you could consider supplementing with a high-quality supplement that contains naturally-grown vitamins and minerals, as opposed to their synthetically grown counterparts.
Before we dive into the details of what naturally-grown means and how it compares to synthetic vitamins, let’s talk about the basics of multivitamins first.
Multivitamins are supplements that contain essential minerals (such as iron and magnesium), as well as fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins.
Keep in mind that the primary purpose of such supplements is to fill gaps in your supply through natural sources. If you already get the proper amounts of micronutrients through diet, supplementing won’t offer you any benefits, and it won’t make you any healthier – the opposite might be the case.
There are some exceptions, such as if you’re a serious athlete who sweats a lot during your workouts, or if you’re on a keto diet. In cases like these, using a high-quality electrolyte supplement or a magnesium supplement can be a good idea. (I use Magnesium Breakthrough on a regular basis.)
Water-Soluble vs. Fat-Soluble vitamins
If you’re not familiar with nutrition, you’re probably wondering what the difference is between these two types of vitamins.
In a nutshell, the main difference is that your body can expel water-soluble vitamins, for example, through the urine, while fat-soluble vitamins can build up in your system to dangerous levels if you’re not careful.
As a result, you cannot overdose on Vitamin B or Vitamin C. However, “less is more” is a good strategy with products that contain high amounts of fat-soluble nutrients.
Below is a list of the most common water-soluble vitamins:
- Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
- Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
- Vitamin B3 (Niacin)
- Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic acid)
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B7 (Biotin)
- Vitamin B9 (Folate)
- Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)
- Vitamin C
Here is a list of fat-soluble vitamins and their maximum daily dosage in parenthesis:
- Vitamin A (Retinol, 3000IU)
- Vitamin D (5000IU)
- Vitamin E (800IU)
- Vitamin K (1000IU)
While too much of the above can cause health issues, it doesn’t mean you should stay away from them.
It’s true that fat-soluble vitamins can build up in your system, but they are also among the most beneficial nutrients that you can consume via supplementation.
For example, if you don’t get enough sun exposure throughout the year, either because of where you live, because you work night shifts or in an office without windows, it might be beneficial to supplement with Vitamin D.
If you get regular sun exposure, your Vitamin D levels are likely fine. So don’t panic, even if you have read horror stories about low Vitamin D levels and the need to supplement.
Based on what I have researched, the whole Vitamin D craze is likely blown out of proportion, thanks to a few individuals and industry lobbyists. More on that when I talk about the global dietary supplement market.
Types of Multivitamins
There are different processes when it comes to manufacturing vitamin supplements. Unsurprisingly, some are more expensive and time-consuming than others. And as so often the case, the cheapest manufacturing method yields the lowest quality products that, I recommend, you stay away from.
1. Natural source
These are highly processed and refined nutrients from vegetable, animal, or mineral sources. An example would be Vitamin D from fish oil.
Unfortunately, manufacturers can use the “natural” label even if they derive only 10% of the ingredients from plants or animal-based sources. The remaining 90% could be synthetic, and you wouldn’t know.
2. Nature-identical synthetic
These are lab-grown vitamins that have the same molecular structure as the equivalent nutrients in nature. Most of the supplement on the market fall into this category. For example, most of the Vitamin C you can find on the market is synthetic and manufactured in China using ascorbic acid.
3. Strictly synthetic
Strictly synthetic supplements have the same chemical constituents but different shape (optical activity) as their natural counterparts. That’s a problem because some of the enzymes in your body can only metabolize nutrients if they have a particular shape. As a result, synthetic vitamins are often much less effective than those that “look like” the ones found in nature.
Some of the most popular multivitamin brands on the market fall into this category, including Centrum.
4. Food cultured
Some manufacturers use yeast, algae, and fermentation to make supplements that are more bioavailable. One of my favorite supplement brands, Performance Lab, uses a similar process the company calls BioGenesis™.
Using BioGenesis™, Performance Lab seeds single-cell organisms (Lactobacillus probiotics and brewer’s yeast) with micronutrients in a hydroponic growth medium.
The results of this innovative process are vitamins and minerals that are nature-identical by mirroring the exact “nutrient-with-cofactors structure found in whole foods.” As a positive side-effect, BioGenesis nutrients have a negligible carbon- and environmental footprint.
In a nutshell, food-cultured multivitamins are often the most potent but expensive type of supplements and the one I’d recommend, you are supplementing.
A few other manufacturers use a process called enzymatic reaction to make vitamin extracts from whole food sources. While the quality of such products is often high, nutrients manufactured that way usually have a short shelf-life and quickly degrade by heat, pH changes, light, and oxygen.
6. Bacterial fermentation
You can also create vitamins by genetically altering bacteria that produce nutrients as by-products. Unfortunately, this mechanism doesn’t produce nature-identical vitamins, and so they have some of the same disadvantages of their synthetic cousins.
Synthetic vs. Natural Multivitamins
As I have mentioned before, the best source of vitamins and minerals is fresh food. The next best thing is nature-identical nutrients if they feature the same enzymes and cofactors as their natural counterparts.
So I’d go with food-cultured products, such as Performance Lab’s Whole-Food Multi, which is available as men’s and women’s formulas.
What I would stay away from are synthetic vitamins because your body won’t be able to use them and you might just as well flush them down the toilet.
Global Supplement Market
Most consumers don’t care about the size of the global supplement market. But I wanted to share a few key facts about it because it illustrates how much money is on the line for manufacturers, influencers, lobbyists, politicians, and health care providers.
Vitamin manufacturers sold $50 Billion worth of products in 2015, which made up a significant chunk of the global dietary supplements market, which is expected to grow to $278.02 Billion by 2024.
That’s a lot of money and, unfortunately, greed is as much of a problem in the health care industry as it is in other areas of life.
For example, I found an article in the New York Times, exposing Dr. Michael Holick, a Boston University endocrinologist. Dr. Holick has helped to create a billion-dollar Vitamin D industry while receiving money from Quest Labs to push the Vitamin D agenda.
I’m not surprised that clowns like Dr. Oz push products if it benefits them. But it is disturbing when smart folks like a Boston University endocrinologist make claims that they cannot scientifically back up, or that are blown out of proportion.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a list of frequently asked questions and answers that I will keep updating based on feedback I receive from readers. So check back from time to time.
Do I need to supplement with multivitamins?
As I have said in the beginning, you might have to. Unfortunately, I don’t have a “yes or no” answer for you, because I don’t know you, and I’m not a doctor.
What I can tell you is this: If you have a crappy diet, fix that first and educate yourself about what it means to eat healthily. For example, cut out highly processed foods and start eating wholesome food instead.
If you feel that you cannot get a sufficient variety from your diet, get a high-quality supplement that contains nature-identical nutrients. There are a handful of excellent choices on the market. I like the one from Performance Lab.
What’s the role of vitamins and minerals in the human body?
Essential micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals perform hundreds of roles in your body. For example, they can convert food into energy through metabolism, they repair bones and cellular damage. They can also bolster your immune system.
Can vitamin supplements really make you healthier?
Your body’s immune system needs several vitamins, including Vitamin C to function optimally. However, unless you are deficient in those vitamins, you won’t decrease the risk of any disease, such as the common cold, the flu, or even cancer.
Instead, focus on getting regular sleep, enough exercise, and a balanced diet to reduce the risk of getting sick.
I’m pregnant. Do I need supplements?
Probably! Talk to your OB/GYN, who will likely suggest or prescribe you a multivitamin that contains higher amounts of folic acid.
Folic acid decreases the occurrence and recurrence of neural tube defects (NTDs) as several studies and systematic reviews have demonstrated.
Is gender-unique multivitamin formulas necessary?
While you may still find non-gender unique formulas useful, it is ideal to choose a supplement that takes the different nutrient requirement of men and women into account.
For example, women benefit from consuming higher dosages of iron due to losing this mineral through menstrual bleeding (which is one of the biggest causes of iron deficiency in women).
Are capsules better than tablets?
You’ve probably seen tons of medicine and multivitamins presented in tablet form. There’s nothing to suggest that tablets ‘don’t work,’ but there are a few disadvantages compared to capsules.
Basically, tablets make things harder for your body to digest; as they are packed together with binders and fillers, it takes longer for your body to break them down and digest. Not only that, these binders and fillers in tablets might contain unhealthy ingredients, such as gluten.
On the other hand, capsules are easy to swallow and break down much quicker once consumed – delivering nutrients to your body faster as a result. Some premium products even use prebiotic-infused capsules so that they improve your digestive health too.
Does organic food have more nutrients?
In a nutshell, yes, organic food is often more nutrient-dense. However, it is essential to understand that even organic food is not free of pesticides and other chemicals.
You might not have known that, but organic does not mean free of chemicals. It merely says that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) limits the chemicals farmers can use to grow their products.
In conclusion, the ideal situation for everyone would be to consume all micronutrients through a well-balanced diet. This is something I recommend everyone to try and achieve. Even if you are taking supplements, understand that they are not designed to replace your meals.
However, it’s not as easy as that for many people; whether you’re working long hours, have food allergies, or just don’t live in a sunny country, multivitamins can help provide nutrients that you would otherwise be missing out on.
I like Performance Lab because they’ve created a cutting edge ‘BioGenesis’ system where they grow and harvest their own nutrients so that they mirror the exact structure found in whole foods. This makes it easier for your body to absorb, while their prebiotic-infused capsules help improve digestive health.
Michael is a healthy living enthusiast and CrossFit athlete whose goal is to help people achieve optimal health by bridging the gap between ancestral living and the demands of modern society.