Getting your vitamins and minerals through diet

The benefits of multivitamins are looking doubtful. Can we do without them?

Published: July, 2009

The answer is a qualified yes – we can do without them, as long as you eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

In the past, doctors often suggested a standard multivitamin with minerals each day. They don't cost much, and earlier studies had shown some benefits. For example, it appeared that folic acid and other B vitamins might lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and possibly cancer. But more recent studies have shown no added benefit of multivitamins for healthy people that eat a balanced diet.

Experts agree that the best way to get the nutrients we need is through food. A balanced diet — one containing plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — offers a mix of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients (some yet to be identified) that collectively meet the body's needs. Maybe what counts is the synergistic interactions of these nutrients — which might also help explain why trials of single nutrients often don't pan out.

Still, there are some reasons for certain people to take vitamins.

Women should take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day during their childbearing years. This is the amount in a standard multiple vitamin. Taking in enough folic acid helps prevent pregnant women from having a baby born with spina bifida.

Also, people that aren't exposed to sunlight too often — which can cause a lack of vitamin D — may benefit from a multivitamin. We need sunlight to change the inactive form of vitamin D in our skin to the active form. Most people in the upper half of the northern hemisphere don't get enough sunlight during winter and most of spring and fall as well. Also, we have been told to avoid sunlight because it ages our skin and causes some types of skin cancers.

Here's another reason to take multivitamins: it may help slow down macular degeneration. This eye disease is seen mainly in older people. But it's not clear whether vitamins actually prevent the disease.

Strict vegetarians should take vitamin B12. They may also need an iron supplement.

The doses in standard multivitamins are safe. If your diet has too little of any vitamin or mineral, multivitamins are still a very low-cost way to protect yourself against vitamin deficiencies.

For those trying to keep down the calories while making sure they get the vitamins and minerals they need, here are some nutrient-dense foods*:

  • Avocados
  • Chard, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach
  • Bell peppers
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Mushrooms (crimini and shiitake)
  • Baked potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cantaloupe, papaya, raspberries, strawberries
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower)
  • Dried beans (garbanzo, kidney, navy, pinto)
  • Lentils, peas
  • Almonds, cashews, peanuts
  • Barley, oats, quinoa, brown rice
  • Salmon, halibut, cod, scallops, shrimp, tuna
  • Lean beef, lamb, venison
  • Chicken, turkey

*Foods that have a lot of nutrients relative to the number of calories.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.