You’ve likely heard that you can obtain all the nutrients you need for optimal health if you eat a healthy diet.  But is this true?

Food should indeed set the foundation for your nutrient intake.  But multivitamins can help fill in any gaps to better support wellness on top of a healthy diet. There are many reasons why even if you eat a healthy diet, it may not contain everything you need.

Multivitamins are designed to provide essential nutrients for your body that may be missing from your diet. There’s often a misconception about vitamins being only needed for certain phases of life or certain medical conditions, but multivitamins can be beneficial for anyone.

What is optimal nutrition?

Glance at the back of a food package and you will notice that it provides percentages of specific nutrients, but what does that actually mean?  And do we all need the same amount?

Dietary guidelines provide a very general foundation to help people make nutrition choices, but they may not be enough for everyone.  For example, the percentage of nutrients found on a food label is based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so it isn’t very helpful if you eat more or less than that amount.

In general, nutrition guidelines are based on the minimum amount of nutrients to prevent severe deficiency diseases.  They are an essential public health tool, but they don’t consider the significant difference between baseline nutrition and optimal health.  Further, your genetics and lifestyle can significantly impact how you need and absorb nutrients.

There is a considerable difference between optimal nutrition versus meeting basic needs.  Most people in developed countries can obtain enough nutrients to prevent severe nutrient deficiencies seen with malnutrition. 

However, optimal nutrition is more than simply preventing deficiency.  It means that you are getting enough nutrients not to just keep you alive but to thrive while reducing the risk of certain health conditions.

How can suboptimal nutrient intake affect your health?

As more research connects the importance of nutrition for reducing the risk of chronic disease, it’s becoming clear that you can have a suboptimal level of a micronutrient before it adversely impacts your health. 

For example, magnesium is a nutrient where suboptimal status is linked to significant chronic health concerns, including blood sugar imbalances and inflammatory conditions.  Yet studies suggest that most people don’t get enough from their diet and may need additional supplementation.1,2  It’s also possible that many cases of suboptimal magnesium deficiency will go undiagnosed because serum measurements can appear normal when actually they aren’t.2

Supplementation with multivitamins may also support people without any known health conditions.  An analysis of studies examining multivitamin supplementation and the effect on mood for people with no known nutrient deficiencies found that supplementation supported improvements in mood and perceived stress, especially B vitamins.3

Similar results were seen in a clinical trial where healthy adults who were given a multivitamin had decreased markers for inflammation and noted improved moods compared to the placebo group.4

Can you meet micronutrient needs from food alone?

Even those who follow seemingly healthy and balanced diets may be missing out on important nutrients. A typical example of this is seen with vegan or vegetarian diets.  It should come as no surprise that a well-designed plant-based diet can be good for you, but you still need to supplement with vitamin B12, which is found only in animal products.

But even if you don’t follow a specific dietary pattern and just follow a generally healthy diet, you can still be missing nutrients. For example, most people know that they should eat at least three to five servings of produce a day but still don’t meet that every day.  In fact, a recent review of global vegetable consumption found that 88 percent of the 162 countries studied had intake below public health recommendations.5

The composition of your diet or the way food is cooked can also impact the accessibility or amount of nutrients.  For example, broccoli, a rich source of vitamin C, loses most of this vitamin in all cooking methods except for steaming.6

Oppositely, cooking certain foods like tomatoes can increase the bioavailability of essential nutrients.  But because most people use a wide variety of preparation methods, it’s not always easy to know exactly how much you are getting from your food.

It’s clear you should eat a wide variety of foods for optimal nutrition, but many people fall into a pattern of eating the same foods or simply don’t have access to fresh produce all year round.  A multivitamin can help fill in these gaps. 

What is the environmental impact on nutrient availability?

Several environmental factors can also influence the amount of nutrients in your food:

  • The nutrient levels in the soil.  The amount of nutrients in the soil impacts how much ends up in your food. Over time the minerals found in soil have dropped significantly, resulting in nutrient losses of five to forty percent, as cited in several studies.7  This is due to several reasons, including the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.

    Overall, this leads to lower nutrient content in plants, which means fewer nutrients are available when we eat them.

    For example, magnesium is a nutrient that is affected by soil content.  Soil contamination from heavy metals and pesticide use may reduce the content of this mineral in the soil and therefore affect how much is in the crops.2
  • Climate change.  When you think of discussions about climate change, you don’t automatically think about food supply ­­­­— but it’s connected.  On a basic level, changes in weather patterns such as drought and rainfall variability can affect how the food is grown and the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients.

    But even further, research suggests that when plants are exposed to higher carbon dioxide levels, they can lose significant amounts of nutrients, including zinc, iron, magnesium, and protein.8,9  This means that food recommendations designed to meet guidelines may no longer provide the same amount of nutrients as climate change worsens.

Multivitamin supplementation can be your nutritional backup plan

There are no one-size-fits-all answers for nutrition. Instead, it’s important to tailor your diet and supplements to match your individual needs. To that end, multivitamins are a great place to start if you’re trying to build out the gaps in an otherwise nutrient-rich diet. 

Subclinical status of nutrients can be as much of an issue as a frank deficiency as we start to understand the connection to our long-term health.

Your diet should always be the foundation, as a multivitamin will never replace real food.  But supplementation can be the insurance policy that supports optimal nutrition.

1. Rosanoff, Andrea, Connie M. Weaver, and Robert K. Rude. “Suboptimal Magnesium Status in the United States: Are the Health Consequences Underestimated?” Nutrition Reviews 70, no. 3 (March 2012): 153–64.

2. DiNicolantonio, James J, James H O’Keefe, and William Wilson. Open Heart 5, no. 1 (January 13, 2018).

3. Long, Sara-Jayne, and David Benton. “Effects of Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation on Stress, Mild Psychiatric Symptoms, and Mood in Nonclinical Samples: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychosomatic Medicine 75, no. 2 (March 2013): 144–53.

4. White, David J., Katherine H. M. Cox, Riccarda Peters, Andrew Pipingas, and Andrew B. Scholey. “Effects of Four-Week Supplementation with a Multi-Vitamin/Mineral Preparation on Mood and Blood Biomarkers in Young Adults: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Nutrients 7, no. 11 (October 30, 2015): 9005–17.

5. Kalmpourtzidou, Aliki, Ans Eilander, and Elise F. Talsma. “Global Vegetable Intake and Supply Compared to Recommendations: A Systematic Review.” Nutrients 12, no. 6 (May 27, 2020).

6. Yuan, Gao-feng, Bo Sun, Jing Yuan, and Qiao-mei Wang. “Effects of Different Cooking Methods on Health-Promoting Compounds of Broccoli.” Journal of Zhejiang University. Science. B 10, no. 8 (August 2009): 580–88.

7. Davis, Donald R. “Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence?” HortScience 44, no. 1 (February 1, 2009): 15–19.

8. Smith, Matthew R., and Samuel S. Myers. “Impact of Anthropogenic CO 2 Emissions on Global Human Nutrition.” Nature Climate Change 8, no. 9 (September 2018): 834–39.

9. Dong, Jinlong, Nazim Gruda, Shu K. Lam, Xun Li, and Zengqiang Duan. “Effects of Elevated CO2 on Nutritional Quality of Vegetables: A Review.” Frontiers in Plant Science 9 (August 15, 2018).