Is your multivitamin worth it? Probably not

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For millions of Americans the idea of taking one multivitamin a day has been drilled into their heads. Marketing can be persuasive. But is the daily popping of these vitamins really necessary?

For most people, the answer is probably not. But, still, U.S. consumers shell out more than $4 billion a year on multivitamins, accounting for well over half of all vitamin sales, according to industry data.

"It's absolutely wrong to take a multivitamin every day. It's a waste of money," said Dr. Stephen Barrett, who runs the Web site Quackwatch. "It's not difficult to scare people because there is no simple way for people to measure what they need or if they are missing something."

What Dr. Barrett does suggest is a visit to MyPyramid.gov, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site that allows users to record what they eat so they can determine whether their diet is properly balanced.

And, if you don't want to do that, consider that multivitamins generally are formulated to give you all of the recommended nutrients a person needs. So, if you're eating anything at all, chances are you already got quite a few of them already. That means the vitamin is piling on to what you've already got in your system.

As Barrett explains it, a multivitamin is kind of like an insurance policy for someone too lazy to determine whether they have any deficiencies. But a body simply doesn't require a daily blast of a wide spectrum of vitamins and minerals, he said.

"It makes no sense to take a multivitamin everyday just to be safe," Barrett said.

None of this is to take away from supplementing your diet with specific vitamins or minerals you know you need more of -- whether it is calcium or vitamin D. Or a doctor telling you that you would benefit from a multivitamin. And there is are subsets of the population that could benefit from a broad spectrum blast of vitamins and minerals -- such as infants and toddlers or teens who subsist on bagels, coffee, soda and candy.

But the nutrients delivered by vitamins are not processed as well as those that come through the food you eat.

If you still feel compelled to take multivitamins to cover yourself, Barrett suggests taking no more than two or three in a week's time. That way you won't overload your system with too much of certain nutrients, which can cause problems. And, he says try to keep your multivitamin spending to a buck or two a month by getting the cheapest store brand or generic you can find.

Dr. Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, which does testing of health and nutrition products, agrees. "A good number of people don't eat all that well and look at a multivitamins as insurance," Cooperman said.

Testing at his labs shows that vitamins don't always have what they claim to. More than 30% of the multivitamins tested by ConsumerLab.com flunked.

Actually, some of them had doses that were larger than claimed. And too much of certain vitamins and minerals can cause problems -- including the kind that could keep you in the bathroom for a while, make you feel overheated or make a bad condition worse.

ConsumerLab.com testing also validated Dr. Barrett's recommendation of going cheap. Some of the most accurate vitamin labels were on the lower-cost store brands.

If you just can't live without your daily multivitamin fix, consider cutting it back to a cheap generic a few times a week. It seems like a reasonable compromise that will keep more money in your pocket instead of in the hands of the giant pharmaceutical companies.

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