Choosing the right multivitamin

Choosing the Right Multivitamin

Vitamins and minerals are essential to survival and longevity, regardless of your sex, race, ethnicity, or age.

We all need to consume nutrients like vitamin C, magnesium, and B vitamins on a regular basis in order for our bodies to function properly. 

Intuitively, when there’s a deficiency of any vitamin or mineral in your body, you simply can’t operate as smoothly as you should. On the flip side, when you have an ample amount of essential vitamins and minerals in your system, you’ve set the foundation for a healthy life and overall wellness. 

This is precisely what multivitamins can help you achieve as part of a well-rounded diet and lifestyle. 

Naturally, choosing the best multivitamin for you can be a daunting task, given the infinite vitamin supplements on the market. You would hope it’s as simple as finding the cheapest multivitamin at the local supermarket, but that’s generally a poor strategy. 

To make this process less burdensome and save you hours of perusing store aisles and websites, we ranked the best multivitamins for men and the best multivitamins for women

If you still have pressing concerns or questions about multivitamins after reading those guides, you’ve come to the right place. 

Multivitamin FAQs  

What’s the difference between vitamins and minerals?

Vitamins are organic (i.e. carbon-containing) substances that we need to ingest in relatively small amounts on a regular basis for survival. Examples are the B vitamins, vitamin D, and vitamin C.

In contrast to vitamins, minerals are inorganic substances, meaning they don’t naturally contain carbon atoms. Most minerals are metal elements, such as magnesium, zinc, calcium, sodium, and potassium. Like vitamins, we also require relatively small quantities of minerals on a regular basis for survival. 

Do multivitamins really work?

This is probably the most common question people have about multivitamins, but I think we should rephrase it before answering. Asking “if something works” is incredibly vague if you really think about it. A car can “work” but still be unreliable, just like many nutritional supplements “work” in the sense that they produce very mild biological effects. 

The more pertinent question to ask is if multivitamins are beneficial. If so, what kind of benefits can you expect from a multivitamin? According to extant evidence, the benefits of taking a multivitamin are not entirely clear. However, a recent meta-analysis suggests that micronutrient inadequacies are an emerging epidemic in the U.S. (and globally), and multivitamins may reduce the risk of diseases and other health issues by helping fulfill vitamin and mineral requirements. 

So rather than relying on vitamin supplements as your predominant source of micronutrients, the optimal approach is to use a multivitamin as a “backup” or complementary source of vitamins and minerals along with a healthy, balanced diet. This approach ensures you get both the benefits of a wholesome diet and any benefits that multivitamins may provide. 

How long does it take for multivitamins to work?

17.25 days, to be precise…

Jokes aside, there is no set time frame for multivitamins to “work.” Remember, multivitamins aren’t magic pills that suddenly transform your life in the blink of an eye. Taking a multivitamin is about supplementing your diet to fill in any possible micronutrient gaps, which in turn can help keep you healthy. In this sense, multivitamins work right from the first dose, but you aren’t going to perceive much difference until you’ve taken them for a considerable time. Think of multivitamins as a long-term “insurance policy” of sorts toward your micronutrient needs.

What’s the difference between men’s multis and women’s multis?

The main difference between gender-specific multivitamins is the dosages of vitamins and minerals, since men generally need more of these micronutrients than women. Other differences are that men’s multivitamins may contain herbal extracts and polyphenols specifically for male health, like saw palmetto extract for prostate health and Tribulus terrestris extract for supporting testosterone levels. Female multivitamins often provide herbal extracts and polyphenols that target women’s health, like vitex extract, uva ursi extract, and cranberry extract. Naturally, it’s best to stick with the multivitamin formulated for your biological sex. 

Do I need to take a multivitamin for optimal health?

This question is impossible to answer without further context. Everybody is unique in terms of their genetics and lifestyle, so whether or not you should take a multivitamin comes down to any potential micronutrient deficiencies and/or health conditions that prevent you from absorbing certain vitamins and minerals through the digestive tract. 

In any case, the path to optimal health is having your vitamin and mineral levels within the normal clinical range. Before you start using a multivitamin (or if you’re currently taking one), consult with a physician and have periodic blood work performed to ensure your vitamin and mineral levels are within normal ranges. 

Concrete data like this provides an objective measurement to gauge your health and wellness. It’s one thing to pop a few pills and think to yourself, “Hmm, I feel a little better.” It’s another thing to have factual values that reassure you those pills are doing what they are intended to do. 

Should I take my multivitamin with food or on an empty stomach?

Take it with food, preferably a complete meal that contains some fat so your body can properly absorb the fat-soluble vitamins.  

What’s the difference between water-soluble vitamins and fat-soluble vitamins?

Water-soluble vitamins are vitamins C and the B vitamins, all of which are soluble in water and rapidly absorbed. Water-soluble vitamins are also less likely to build up to toxic levels in the event of an overdose, since they are readily excreted in the urine. 

Fat-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, are vitamins that are soluble in lipids (fats), which makes them insoluble in water. Hence, having some fat in the digestive tract helps the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K. Toxicity of fat-soluble vitamins is more likely to occur if you ingest excessive amounts regularly, since — with the exception of vitamin K — these vitamins are stored in the liver and slowly excreted. 

Is it better to take multivitamins if I don’t eat a lot of vegetables or fruits?

It’s hard to say whether people who consume a plant-rich diet benefit less by taking a multivitamin than those who don’t eat as many micronutrients from whole foods. Logically, you would think that those who consume ample amounts of vitamins and minerals from whole foods wouldn’t see much benefit by taking a multivitamin, and vice versa. However, this could lead to the misapprehension that multivitamins replace a healthy, balanced diet, which they don’t. Again, multivitamins are complementary to your diet. 

Multivitamins and Longevity: Do Vitamins Make You Live Longer?

Now, for the grand finale multivitamin question: “Will multivitamins make me live longer?”

The answer: In conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle, possibly. 

I realize that’s not the black-and-white response you were hoping for, but if I’m being candid, very few things pertaining to human health and nutrition are that clear-cut. 

The good news is that high-quality multivitamins have a reputable safety profile, and the chances of them reducing your lifespan are next to nil. I know that isn’t much of a selling point — “Oh great, taking this pill won’t kill me. That’s reassuring!” 

Unfortunately, science and clinical studies can only control so many variables at once and tracking the daily activities of millions of people over decades makes it exceedingly difficult to study the effects of multivitamins on our longevity. To account for these hurdles, determining a supplement’s safety profile is the next best thing. 

As a recent systematic review put it, “multivitamins did not increase the risk of mortality and may provide a modest protective benefit against cancer and cardiovascular disease.” 

Given the unemphatic, matter-of-fact prose of scientific writing, that’s actually a pretty compelling statement. 

Elliot Reimers

Elliot Reimers is a NASM Certified Nutrition Coach (CNC) and M.S. candidate at Michigan State University, where he is studying Molecular Pharmacology and Toxicology. He has been a freelance science writer since 2013, centering on the topics of nutritional science, dietary supplementation, fitness, and exercise physiology. He received his B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and is an inveterate “science nerd” who loves fitness. He is passionate about coaching and educating people about how to live healthier, be smarter about what they put in their bodies, and perform better. In his spare time, you’re most likely to find Elliot hoisting barbells, hiking the mountains of beautiful Colorado, or working on content for Simply Shredded.