What Are Multivitamins, How Do They Work & Do You Really Need One?

Multivitamin Benefits

Quick Health Scoop

  • Multivitamins are a supplement that packs in essential vitamins and minerals your body needs
  • Because many Americans often don’t eat healthy, they might not be getting the key nutrients they need through food
  • Taking a multivitamin improves overall nutrient intake, and helps to close nutrient gaps, especially for people who can’t or don’t get the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals from food alone
  • Multivitamins offer a range of benefits to your health and wellbeing

In an ideal world, we would all eat a variety of healthy foods every day, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein. Doing so would provide us with most of the nutrients we need, from Vitamin A to Zinc. But life happens and sometimes our best of intentions fall by the wayside as we reach for packaged, convenience foods that might not be the best choice. Perhaps that’s why so many people turn to multivitamins to fill in the nutritional gaps. But what exactly are multivitamins? And, more importantly, do multivitamins work?

What Are Multivitamins?

Let’s start with the reality that many Americans have poor eating habits and don't consume the recommended nine servings of fruit and vegetables every day. As a result, many people who follow a Western diet don’t meet the recommended daily allowances established by the U.S. Institute of Medicine for many vitamins and essential minerals.1 

While multivitamins should never replace a balanced, healthy diet, they can provide vitamins and minerals essential to your health and help fill nutrient gaps. So, what are multivitamins? Sometimes called multis or vitamins, multivitamins are a supplement that typically pack essential vitamins and minerals, often in the form of a tablet, capsule, liquid, gummy, or gel cap. Commonly, multivitamins are taken once a day and include all or most vitamins and minerals, with the majority in amounts that are close to recommended daily amounts.2 

Because multivitamins are not medications, you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to buy these dietary supplements. You can purchase them at most pharmacies, grocery stores, mass merchandise and club stores, as well as online retailers.

Learn More: How to Choose a Multivitamin

Multivitamin Benefits

The body requires 13 vitamins and at least 16 minerals essential to your health.3 Depending on the brand, multivitamins will contain a variety of these vitamins, minerals, and perhaps other ingredients, such as fatty acids and herbs. And the specific amount of each nutrient needed each day varies by age, gender, and if you are pregnant or lactating.4 

All of these nutrients play different but important roles in the body. Think of multivitamins as the Swiss Army Knife of supplements, as they deliver multiple benefits in promoting good health.

Your body needs these important nutrients for a variety of functions ranging from reproduction to maintenance to growth. Vitamins and minerals help convert food into energy, build strong bones, protect vision, heal wounds, build protein, provide antioxidant benefits, regulate bodily processes, support your immune system, and provide many other health benefits.5, † 

Learn More: What Vitamins Should You Take Daily?

Do You Need A Multivitamin?

If you’re trying to live a healthy lifestyle, you strive to make the right choices every day. You manage your stress, eat healthy, exercise, and get a good night’s sleep. But life often throws a curveball, which might impact your health and the choices you make each day.

You know yourself better than anyone. If you follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendations for healthy eating, you focus on eating a variety of nutrient dense foods, and choose foods and beverages with less saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.6 Ask yourself a few questions to determine how healthy you’re truly eating:

  • Do you regularly “eat the rainbow” by choosing a variety of fruits (bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, kiwi, oranges, ) and vegetables (broccoli, carrots, red bell peppers, spinach, tomatoes)? 
  • Do you avoid processed foods, such as bacon, potato chips, and cookies? 
  • Do you eat a variety of whole grains, such as oats, wheat, bulgur, quinoa, and barley? 
  • Do you choose fat-free or low-fat dairy options? 
  • Do you choose healthy proteins such as lean meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds?
  • Do you include healthy fats such as fatty fish, avocados, olive oil, walnuts and almonds?

If you answered yes, then you’re probably getting most of the nutrients you need from food and beverages every day. But if you answered no to even one or two questions, you might not be getting enough key nutrients your body needs every day. Either way, to help close nutrient gaps  and provide your body with a “nutrient insurance policy,” it is probably a good idea to take a daily multivitamin.

Read More: Healthy Meal Prep Recipes

Also, keep in mind that certain people—including pregnant and breastfeeding women, people age 50 and older, vegetarians and vegans, smokers, and people with some health conditions—may need more or less of certain vitamins and minerals. Also, certain health conditions or medications might make it even more difficult to get the necessary nutrients from food alone. If you are concerned about any of the above, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor or pharmacist.

Taking a multivitamin is just another healthy choice in your “healthy lifestyle toolbox.” It increases your nutrient intake and gives you the confidence in knowing that you’re covering your basic nutritional needs even on days when you might skip a meal or make less-than-healthy food choices.

How Do Multivitamins Work?

Once you take a multivitamin by mouth, the supplement dissolves and works its way through your body in different ways. It is important to take your multivitamin along with some food and water to help dissolve the supplement (if it’s a tablet or gel cap) — it’s best to take it with a meal that contains some fat, to help absorb fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K that might be in the multivitamin. The water-soluble vitamins (like the B vitamins and vitamin C) are absorbed directly into the bloodstream as food is broken down during digestion and when a supplement dissolves. The fat-soluble vitamins get into the blood through the intestinal wall’s lymph channels. Minerals move through the body in a variety of ways, with some (like potassium) being quickly absorbed into the bloodstream while others (like calcium) require a carrier for absorption and transport.5 

The Bottom Line

Multivitamins are great for anyone who wants to make sure their bodies are getting enough of the nutrients they need. Taking a multivitamin improves overall nutrient intake, and helps to close nutrient gaps as most Americans don’t get the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals from food alone. Plus, multivitamins offer a range of benefits to your health and wellbeing. As always, you should check with your healthcare provider before taking any new vitamins, or supplements.


This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

References:

1. Linus Pauling Institute. “Are Multivitamins Useless?” 2020. Accessed on: October 13, 2020. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/are-multivitamins-useless 

2. National Institutes of Health. “Multivitamin/mineral Supplements: Fact Sheet for Consumers.” November 22, 2019. Accessed on: October 14, 2020. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/MVMS-Consumer/ 

3. Pharmacy Times. “Vitamins and Minerals Explained.” https://www.pharmacytimes.com/view/vitamins-and-minerals-explained 

4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Dietary Guidelines For Americans 2015-2020, Eighth Edition.” 2020. Accessed on: October 14, 2020.  https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-7/ 

5. HelpGuide. “Vitamins and Minerals: Are You Getting What You Need?” Adapted from Making Sense of Vitamins and Minerals, a special health report published by Harvard Health Publishing. 2019. https://www.helpguide.org/harvard/vitamins-and-minerals.htm

6. U.S. Department of Agriculture. “My Plate.” 2020. Accessed on: October 14, 2020. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/WhatIsMyPlate