What to Look For in a Multivitamin

If you grew up in the ’90s, Flintstones vitamins were your fifth major food group. Me? I snuck extra servings at lunch and dinner, in addition to my breakfast serving. It’s entirely possible that I kept eating these multivitamins until about two years ago, when they disappeared from my local grocery store and I hadn’t yet figured out Amazon.com.

However, even now, I’ve taken the “which looks the most colorful and chewy?” approach to choosing my multivitamin. I’m ashamed to admit that until I actually wrote this post, I’d never looked at the label of my multivitamin bottle before. (In my defense, I was blinded by the claims of “FLAVOR BURST!” and mixed fruit natural and artificial flavors)


But should you be taking a multivitamin in the first place? Not necessarily, says our resident dietitian Catherine Borkowski.

“My dietitian opinion about multivitamins and supplements is first to always try to get your nutrients from food. If someone is healthy and able (and willing) to eat a balanced, healthy diet, there isn’t a need for a multivitamin/mineral supplement. A person can get all they need from food.”

So, if you eat a balanced, healthy diet, a multivitamin might not be necessary for you. On the other hand, according to Catherine, there are certain circumstances when a person might need a multivitamin because they’re missing out on vital nutrients. Straight from her wise dietitian’s mouth:

  • Someone who does not regularly eat a healthy diet- a vitamin/mineral supplement would be needed to fill in the nutrient gaps depending on how poor the diet is
  • A vegetarian/vegan- might need vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc (nutrients found mostly in animal-based foods); especially B12 for vegans
  • Someone with a restrictive diet or food intolerances (can’t get the nutrient from the missing foods – dairy, grains, etc) or a health condition that affects nutrient absorption
  • A woman who has heavy menstrual bleeding- may need an iron supplement
  • A woman of child-bearing age/planning to become pregnant – may need to take folic acid
  • A pregnant or breastfeeding woman- may need more nutrients- folate, iron, calcium, vitamin D

You might think you have a healthy diet (especially if you’re a vegetarian or vegan), but you still might be lacking in certain vitamins and minerals. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most children and adults are at risk of not getting enough calcium, vitamin D, and potassium – all of which come ready to chew in a multivitamin. It’s like a backup plan for those days when your eating isn’t as clean as you would have liked.

Ready to hit the pharmacy? Here are a few things to look for in a multivitamin.

Start with the basics

Here’s a laundry list of vitamins and minerals to look for on your potential multivitamin label:

  • Vitamins A, C, E, and D
  • B1 (thiamin)
  • B2 (riboflavin)
  • B3 ( niacin)
  • B6
  • Folic acid (B9)
  • B12
  • B5 (pantothenic acid)
  • Biotin
  • Potassium
  • Iodine
  • Selenium
  • Borate
  • Zinc
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Betacarotene
  • Iron

Looks like a lot, right? Don’t stress too much. These are likely to be in most multivitamins.

Look for your age and sex

Not rocket science here. Multivitamins for specific ages and sexes are made with a few different tweaks to make the supplement as useful as it can be for that particular group.  If you’re a woman, look for a vitamin for women; it’ll contain iron to help replace the iron you lose during menstruation. If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, get prenatal vitamins, which will include folic acid.

As you get older, you might need to switch multivitamins. Check with your doctor regularly to see how your nutritional needs might change as you age, and make a plan for how a multivitamin might help offset that.

100 percent is best

Ideally, most of the “% DV” (percent daily value) of the vitamins and minerals listed is 100 percent, so you’re getting all of them in one serving.

Anything over 100 percent? Be wary. You probably get some of these nutrients from food too, and if some of them build up in large doses, they could become toxic.

Safety first

Look for “USP” on the label. That stands for United States Pharmacopeia, and it means that the multivitamin meets the standards of the USP, plus all the ingredients listed are actually in the multivitamin. And, as always, talk with your doctor before doing anything new, and get their recommendation for a multivitamin that’s right for you.

So in a nutshell, eating a healthy diet with a variety of foods is the ultimate, best way to ensure your body gets all the vitamins and minerals it needs; however, if you fall into one of the buckets described above, it might be worth talking with your doctor to see if a multivitamin is for you. Now, anyone know if they make Flintstones for adults?

Eat Nutrients & Supplements

About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.

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