In a perfect world, we’d get all of our nutrition from food, and it would satisfy each of our individual daily requirements. Ideally, it would be delicious, fresh and organically grown. It’d be budget friendly and waiting for us — nice and hot on the table when we arrived home.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t the case for most people. What stands between us and a perfect diet is time, finances, access to ingredients or a varying combination of all three. To make up for the nutritional slack, most of us rely on supplements and a multivitamin as part of our daily routine.
The basic difference between a multivitamin and a supplement is that a multivitamin is usually a pill, compacted with many types of vitamins and a supplement is mostly composed of only one main ingredient.
What You Need
Essential vitamins include beta-carotene, B complex, C, D3, E, K and Zinc. They’re responsible for the metabolic processes we need for survival. They maintain our different systems and convert food into energy. It isn’t likely that we can go for a long period of time, devoid of one or many and not encounter health problems. Vitamins beta carotene (which is metabolized into ‘A’), C and E are antioxidants. Among other things, antioxidants help to erase free radicals, which occur as a result of our external environment, poor diet and underlying health (1).
Focus on Food
In theory, it seems logical to compound all of our necessary vitamins and minerals into one convenient pill. In reality, however, multivitamins are a far cry from a cure all. For one, relying on a multivitamin for something relatively easy to find in food (such as vitamin C) is like nutritionally taking one step forward and a few steps back. The vitamins or minerals found in real foods are often easier to absorb.
Food is always the best place to get the vitamins we need. Many times you can tell what vitamins a food contains by it’s color; vitamins, antioxidants, phytonutrients and chlorophyll also affect color. Let’s go through the rainbow: Red fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals such as lycopene. Orange and deep orange such as citrus and carrots), contain vitamin C and beta-carotene. Yellow fruits and vegetables have enzymes which promote healthy digestion, as well as vitamin C. Green fruits and especially dark green vegetables, contain vitamin K, but also large amounts of vitamin C. Blue and purple fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin C, as well as other antioxidants.
Additionally, vitamin E is a combination of oils, and it can be found in nuts. B vitamins are found in animal-based products. Vitamin D3 is found in some animal-based foods, but it can be hard to get enough from food. But most people don’t eat all of these things every day so supplements are almost always completely necessary to meet our RDV (1).
Do Multivitamins Work?
Natural vs. Synthetic
The multivitamin is supposed to pick up where food leaves off, but different brands aren’t created equal, regardless of what the label states. Where does the vitamin E or A or K come from? That’s a very important question and it varies from brand to brand. Vitamins and minerals are categorized into two groups: naturally derived or synthetic. Naturally derived means it exists as it’s found in food. Synthetic means it was created in a lab, with ingredients that aren’t usually found in nature, or whose structure has been altered.
“It’s not only important to find brands that you can trust but to also research where the vitamins and minerals are actually sourced from.”
The vitamin or mineral’s chemical structure needs to be easy and safe for us to absorb and it also should provide that specific vitamin’s full benefits. Here’s where companies often cut costs by using cheap filler and lesser grade ingredients. It’s not only important to find brands that you can trust but to also research where the vitamins and minerals are actually sourced from.
One of the biggest problems a multivitamin has is often overlooked for the sake of convenience. Many vitamins inhibit the absorption of another specific vitamin when ingested at the same time. This doesn’t mean they all cancel one another out completely, but the absorption rate is lower and not easy to predict. An example is how beta-carotene inhibits K (potassium). Potassium aids in metabolic processes, elimination and electrolyte function. It’s best to avoid taking them at the same time. Again, the quantity of A and K you’d absorb from your multivitamin is hard (if not impossible) to estimate and varies person to person.
Timing For Effectiveness vs. Convenience
Some foods can hinder or help with the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. Caffeine isn’t exactly a food, but it’s been shown to cause the body to expel stored calcium (4). Grapefruit contains an enzyme that can block the absorption or unsafely accelerate the effects of specific drugs and vitamins (6). Interactions from food are uncommon, but they’re worth looking into if you have an underlying medical condition.
Vitamin D3 and the other fat-soluble vitamins (A, K, E) are better processed when taken with healthy fats. Food high in omega-3’s or an omega-3 supplement is beneficial. D3 works in tandem with calcium and magnesium, which if you’re getting through a multivitamin obviously can’t be isolated. Clearly then, spacing your vitamins and supplements around your schedule and lifestyle should be given an extra bit of attention (3).
Multivitamins also contain a variety of minerals. Much like vitamins, some minerals can lessen the absorption of other minerals. Magnesium helps in over 300 enzymatic processes and it has also been shown to help with sleep quality. Improved sleep quality is certainly an appealing benefit however if you rely on a multivitamin, which usually includes an energizing B-complex, you probably won’t feel the positive sleep benefits of magnesium. Magnesium should be taken as a supplement (5).
What about iron and calcium supplements? Answering this question depends on everyone’s individual needs. When to take mineral supplements and how much is critical to research and it should be based on each individual’s own diet and what they’re missing. Trace minerals, which are often included in multivitamins are beneficial for secondary cell function, but no RDV has been set and they should generally be ingested in small amounts.
The multivitamin is an idea that works better in theory than practice. The “quick fix” it promises is easier said than done. Essential vitamins and minerals are first and foremost found in food. They’re more easily absorbed in their natural state than they are in their synthetic, and it’s crucial to keep in mind all companies aren’t created equal.
Every well-rounded nutrition and training program should contain the correct supplements for that specific individual. What we lack in diet we can supplement with just that: high-quality supplements that serve a specific purpose. They should be taken at the proper time and in the correct amounts for optimum nutrition and ultimately optimum health.
Try These Supplements
D3 – Vitamin D
Vitamin D3 in a potent dose, dissolved in organic coconut oil for optimal absorption.
M3 – High Quality Magnesium
Magnesium in bioavailable forms mixed with zinc, vitamin B6 and malic acid for optimal effect.
1.“Dietary Reference Intakes: Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline.” National Academy Press. 1998, February 26. Retrieved from .
2.“Supplements: Nutrition in a Pill?” Mayo Clinic Staff. 2014, Oct 18.
3.“9 Things That Can Undermine Your Vitamin D Level.” Harvard Health Publications. 2016, Feb 26.
4.“Coffee Nutrient Interactions.” Higdon, Jane. 2005, March 15.
5.“The Effect of Magnesium Supplementation on Primary Insomnia in Elderly: A Double-blind Placebo-controlled Clinical Trial.” Abbasi B, Kimigar M, Sadehniiat K, Shirazi MM, Hedeyati M, Rashidkhani B. 2012 Dec 17.
6.“Avoid Food Drug Interactions.” FDA Government. 2016, February 22.