Multivitamins and minerals
Multivitamin and mineral supplements can be a helpful way to ‘fill the gaps’ in our natural nutrient intake. Various factors in our modern diets and lifestyles may mean that we get less than optimal amounts of nutrients from our foods, and some people may have greater needs than others, meaning that a multivitamin and mineral could be helpful. For more information and guidance on choosing a multivitamin and mineral, please read on.
Why take a multivitamin and mineral?
The primary reason to take a multivitamin and mineral is to help ‘fill the gaps’ in nutrient intake from our diet. It is, of course, possible to get everything we need from food. However, modern food production methods, as well as our own food choices and lifestyle factors may conspire against this and mean that we’re not getting all that we need. Factors can include:
- Long-term storage of foods, including fruits and vegetables. Water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C may be particularly prone to loss when fresh fruits and vegetables are stored for long periods of time.
- Eating processed foods has become the ‘norm’ for many people. Processed foods tend to be low in naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.
- Even in whole foods such as vegetables, fruit and meat, mineral content has decreased. A study comparing mineral content of foods between 1940 and 1991 found for example that spinach had 63% decreased iron content and 43% decreased magnesium content in 1991 compared to 1940. 
- Because of our sedentary lifestyles, we need to consume less food now than we did in the past – so may naturally take in lower amounts of vitamins and minerals.
- Chronic stress in our modern lifestyles can interfere with digestion of foods and absorption of nutrients.
- Unless we eat organ meats as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did, we may be missing out on vitamins that are difficult to get in adequate quantities and in bioavailable forms from other foods – particularly vitamin A.
- Vegetarians and vegans may be particularly prone to missing out on nutrients that are found primarily in animal foods, such as vitamin B12, iron, vitamin K2 and preformed vitamin A.
To support the idea that we may not get all we need through food, a study published in 2013 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that a high percentage of people across eight European countries are getting less than the ‘Estimated Average Requirement’ (EAR)* for many vitamins and minerals. For example, the researchers found that 40 per cent of females and 36 per cent of males in the UK aged 18 to 60 had an intake of magnesium less than the EAR. Low intakes by UK adults were also found for selenium, zinc, calcium, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin B2, folate (folic acid), vitamin D and vitamin E, and also iron intake for women.
* Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) is the level of a nutrient that meets the needs of only 50 per cent of the population (and therefore is lower than the RDA).
So who could benefit in particular from taking a supplement?
The facts above suggest that unless we eat only organically grown, locally produced food that is stored for minimal periods of time, don’t eat any processed foods, have a relatively stress-free lifestyle, and eat from all the food groups, most of us could benefit from a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement, at least at certain times.
Individuals who may benefit in particular include:
- Anyone who eats processed foods or ‘junk’ foods of any kind on a regular basis. A multivitamin and mineral does not make up for a poor diet, but for those who are unwilling to – or cannot – improve their diet, then it may be helpful to fill the gaps.
- Anyone who is unable to prepare their own food or shop for themselves, and therefore may eat less fresh and good quality food.
- Vegetarians/vegans, for the reasons stated above.
- Anyone who is stressed, run-down or low in energy. Many nutrients are needed for energy production, including vitamin C, magnesium and B vitamins, and so deficiency of any of these may result in fatigue. (Note that it is important to see your doctor if you are low in energy to rule out any specific causes such as anaemia.)
- Anyone who has poor digestion, or poor absorption of nutrients. This may include elderly people, or anyone with digestive problems.
- Those who are doing a lot of intensive exercise. All the vitamins and minerals that are needed for energy production will be used up more quickly in those who do a lot of exercise, and sometimes it can be hard to eat enough nutrient-dense foods to replace them.
How to choose a multivitamin and mineral supplement: Lifestyle Labs’ recommendations
Asking yourself the following questions can help you to decide which multivitamin and mineral best suits your needs. If you need further guidance, consult a nutritional practitioner.
- Do you need or prefer a specific form of multivitamin? For example, those who find it difficult to swallow tablets or capsules may find liquids or powders easier to take; but for convenience and value (they are often cheaper), other people prefer tablets.
- Are you looking for a ‘one a day’ supplement? Products that recommend a dosage of two or more tablets/capsules a day can be more comprehensive, but many people prefer just to take one tablet. In this case it is better to go for a supplement specifically designed as a ‘one-a-day’.
- Do you need more intensive energy support? This may be the case if you are doing a lot of exercise, or are run-down or fatigued. Multivitamins that contain higher amounts of B vitamins may be helpful; or choose a higher-dose multi, which will often mean taking more than one tablet/capsule a day.
- Do you have digestive problems or know that you don’t have optimal absorption? Liquids or powders may be better for you. Capsules can also be a better choice than tablets. Or go for a ‘wholefood’ or ‘food-state’ multivitamin (see the next point).
- Are you looking for the most natural solution? ‘Wholefood’ or ‘food-state’ supplements contain the vitamins and minerals in the same forms as food, instead of isolated vitamins and minerals. They often contain lower dosages than other multis, but may be better absorbed and utilised by the body.
- Would you like a targeted multivitamin and mineral? Some products are formulated to provide extra support for specific areas of health – for example, eye, heart or brain health.
Multivitamins and minerals for children
When choosing a multivitamin and mineral for a child, it’s important to either:
- Choose one specifically formulated for children, OR
- Choose a general multivitamin that states on the label that it can also be used for children, and gives a dosage dependent on age.
If in doubt whether a multivitamin can be used for your child, check with the supplement manufacturer or a nutritional practitioner.
If you are taking any medications or have any medical condition, please consult your healthcare practitioner before taking a multivitamin and mineral.
Multivitamin and mineral supplements are generally suitable for most people and for long-term use. However, if you are also taking other supplements that contain vitamins and minerals in any combination/quantity, or you are taking individual vitamins or minerals in addition to your multi, it is worth checking that you are not getting too much of any specific ingredient. The most important ones to look out for include:
- Selenium: not more than 200µg a day in total, unless advised by your healthcare practitioner.
- Vitamin A: not more than 5000iu (1.5mg) of pre-formed vitamin A (retinol / retinyl acetate / retinyl palmitate) a day on a long-term basis, unless advised by your healthcare practitioner. There is a potential risk of taking too much vitamin A, for example, if you are taking a cod liver oil supplement and a multivitamin and mineral containing pre-formed vitamin A. Vitamin A as beta carotene can be taken in higher levels or in combination with pre-formed vitamin A.
- Iron: it can be more difficult to give a maximum daily dose for iron, as this very much depends on the need of the individual. In general, for men and for women who do not menstruate (i.e. after menopause), it’s not recommended to have more than the RDA of 14mg per day in total from supplements unless advised by a healthcare practitioner. For those who are eating a lot of iron-rich foods (primarily red meats and organ meats), then it is advisable to choose a multivitamin and mineral without iron unless otherwise recommended.
If in doubt, please check with a nutritional practitioner.
- A study on the mineral depletion of the foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 to 1991. (n.d.). Available at: http://www.mineralresourcesint.co.uk/pdf/mineral_deplet.pdf [Accessed 4 Sep. 2015].
- Mensink GB, Fletcher R, Gurinovic M et al. Mapping low intake of micronutrients across Europe. Br J Nutr. 2013 Aug;110(4):755-73.