Multivitamins: How To Choose A Multivitamin

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 - 10:39am

By Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN

What’s more confusing than walking down the dietary supplement aisle? Should you buy a multivitamin that includes additional calcium and vitamin C? What’s so special about "special" formulas? Most of us know that it’s important to get our vitamins and minerals from whole foods and a healthful diet. However, many registered dietitians and nutrition experts recommend a multivitamin supplement daily. Why? Well, the general theory is that you’ve got to cover all the bases.

When choosing a multivitamin, don’t assume that expensive vitamins at the health food store are superior in quality or more absorbable. Oftentimes, some of the best multivitamins are at your local drug store, and generics are fine. However, you should know what to look for. The National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) has recently updated recommendations on how much of each vitamin and mineral we need daily (slightly altered depending upon gender and age). But for now, let’s stick with the basic criteria.

Multivitamin basics

Use the KISS principle (Keep it Simple & Smart) in your approach to eating and to choosing a multivitamin. First, when scanning the label, make sure the multivitamin offers at least 100% of the Daily Value (DV-indicated on the label) for all of the following vitamins:

The multivitamin should contain no more than 15,000 International Units (IUs) of beta-carotene (the form of vitamin A found in foods) with more than 4000 IUs coming from retinol. Too much retinol can be toxic. Instead, load up on beta-carotene rich fruits and vegetables such as carrots, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, and broccoli. As far as minerals go, the multivitamin should contain:

  • 18 mg of iron
  • At least 100 mg of magnesium

Multivitamin extras that count

What other nutrients are beneficial and make the multivitamin even better? The best multivitamins offer 0.9 mg of copper, 50 mcg of selenium, and 11 mg of zinc. What about calcium? Multivitamins typically don’t contain more than 200 mg of calcium, but you need 1000-1200 mg daily. This much calcium won’t fit into a one-pill multivitamin, so you’ve got to take it separately. Try to consume three servings of dairy products daily. One serving provides approximately 300 mg of calcium and equals one cup of milk or yogurt, one ounce of cheese, or one cup of calcium-fortified orange juice. Take a supplement offering 300 mg for each serving of dairy you miss. The best calcium supplements contain vitamin D as well, for better calcium absorption (400-600 IU daily including what you get from your multivitamin).

Multivitamin extras you don’t need

There is no evidence that you need more iodine, manganese, molybdenum, chloride, boron, biotin, or pantothenic acid than what you get from the foods you eat daily. You need not worry about the amount of potassium and phosphorous in your multivitamin. Typically, the amount of potassium in multivitamins is low. It is found abundantly in many foods, including fruits and vegetables. In addition, the less phosphorous you get in your multivitamin, the better; it impairs calcium absorption and you get enough from the foods you eat.

Multivitamins are not a substitute for food

Remember, a multivitamin is no substitute for a healthful diet and doesn’t provide the dozens of disease fighting chemicals found in colorful produce and other plant foods! Think of it like insurance. Strive to consume a varied diet including at least 6 ounces of lean meat or meat substitutes, especially fish and beans, heart-healthy fats (such as those found in olive and canola oils, nuts, seeds and avocados), several servings of low- or non-fat dairy products (or non-dairy calcium-rich foods), at least 6 servings of whole grains such as brown rice and oatmeal, and 5 or more servings of colorful fruits and vegetables daily.