Magic pill?

Dear Lucy: I know that food supplements can’t provide everything we need to be healthy, and I know we should eat fresh fruits and veggies. But does it help at all to take a multivitamin pill daily? I’ve heard that most of these vitamins are just giving you overdoses of things you already get in your diet, but we students don’t always eat very balanced meals. And if you do recommend daily vitamins, what brand is the best? (I’ve been using GNC.) —Too Busy To Eat

Illustration of a cornucopia containing capsules and multivitamin bottles

Dear Busy: What a great question! MIT is a community full of busy people, and students aren’t the only ones who sometimes forgo balanced meals in favor of fast, convenient, and filling—and then wonder whether they’re getting all the nutrients they need.

“I think taking a basic multivitamin is a good insurance policy with no real risk,” MIT Medical Nutritionist Anna Jasonides tells Lucy. After observing the eating habits of the MIT community for more than 20 years, Jasonides knows our collective diet deficiencies all too well. “Vitamins are no replacement for a healthy diet,” she emphasizes, “and you shouldn’t expect miracles from a multivitamin, but let’s be realistic—most people’s diets are not that great. So taking a multivitamin can be a wise choice.”

An overdose is very unlikely, she notes. “You only have to worry about overdosing on the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K,” she says. “But that can’t happen with a basic multivitamin. Just avoid anything labeled ‘high potency,’ and read the label to make sure the vitamin dosage is the standard RDA—that’s the government’s ‘recommended daily allowance’—or close to it.” 

Jasonides declines to recommend a specific brand of multivitamin—“just too many on the market for me to specify one”—but advises looking for a seal of certification from one of the organizations that test and certify vitamins and other food supplements: USP, NSF, ConsumerLab, or UL. While a seal from one of these organizations doesn’t reflect the same high standards for safety and efficacy set by the FDA for drugs, it’s still a good indication that the product contains the amount of the ingredient advertised on the label and that it isn’t contaminated with dangerous substances like arsenic, bacteria, or lead.

Finally, Jasonides says, your multivitamin should be affordable. “Walk away from anything that costs too much,” she cautions. “That’s a red flag.”

And there you have it: Try to eat better, but since you might not always succeed, take a basic multivitamin daily. As always, Lucy thanks our intrepid nutritionist for her tireless efforts to save us from ourselves! —Lucy

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