Taking multivitamins as a nutritional insurance policy may impact more than just your wallet. According to nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, “it may contribute to neglecting healthy food choices”, and this has consequences for long-term health.
Real food has several big advantages over supplements.
- Unlike multivitamins, whole foods contain substances such as fibre and polyphenols, which can help protect against conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
- Whole foods also contain a host of other substances – many of which we may not even know about – that help vitamins and minerals be absorbed by the body and do their job inside cells.
- And whole foods often contain vitamins and minerals in different forms, all of which range in their ability to be absorbed by the body (known as their bioavailability). Vitamin E occurs in nature in eight different forms, for example, but supplements usually contain just one.
Multivitamins for kids?
In the case of children, it’s particularly important for parents to provide a healthy selection of foods rather than give a multivitamin to cover up for possible nutritional shortfalls. Stanton stresses that it’s not OK for kids to eat junk just because they’re getting multivitamins. “A recent study of Australian preschoolers found that 31% were overweight or obese, and their diets lacked fibre and had too much saturated fat – problems that a multivitamin won’t fix.”
“Don’t offer something that will distract from consumption of real food,” says Watson. “Children become consumers of everything you serve them eventually, so it’s worth persisting with good food.”
Vitamins and minerals: how much and which foods?
A few specific situations or groups of people aside, most people can fulfil their vitamin and mineral requirements by eating a healthy, balanced diet.
- To check the recommended dietary intake of all macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate, fibre) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) for your gender and age, use the NHMRC's Nutrient Calculator.
- For a comprehensive list of vitamins and minerals, their function in the human body and the best dietary sources, go to the Department of Health & Ageing's Vitamins & Minerals webpage.
Supplements: who needs them?
Specific vitamin and mineral supplements may be beneficial for the following groups of people, but bear in mind that individual requirements vary and it’s best to get advice from a health professional before self-prescribing.
- Pregnant women and those trying to conceive (one month prior to conception and three months after): Folate
- People with limited exposure to sunlight such as institutionalised or bedbound elderly, dark-skinned people and veiled women: Vitamin D
- People on a strict vegan diet and the frail aged who may be eating poorly and/or absorbing less from their food: Vitamin B12
- People on restrictive diets (including those with eating disorders, food allergies or intolerances and those on low-kilojoule weight-loss diets): supplement depends on the nature of the diet