They just aren't worth taking. Here's why.
A Good Idea That Doesn't Work Well
The idea behind multivitamin tablets is solid. Our diets are haphazard, our foods in general are mass-produced and vitamin poor, and the soil in which they're grown has been robbed of nutrients by overuse, pesticides, and probably malevolent gophers. So sure, pop some vitamins because it's good insurance against vitamin and mineral deficiencies in general.
Too bad it's not that simple. Certain vitamins should only be taken at certain times or with certain foods, and minerals complicate the whole thing even further because so many of them interact with vitamins or each other.
Chances are, the average multivitamin contains a dozen things that, at best, curtail the absorption of one or more vitamins, and at worst, completely inactivate other vitamins.
First, A Look at Timing
Timing is the easy part. It can easily be remedied, provided you don't mind corresponding your vitamin intake with different times of the day.
Consider the B vitamins. Luckily, they can all be taken together, but unfortunately, they're a bit hard to assimilate. Ever wonder why the average multivitamin contains about 40,000% of the daily requirement of B-12? It's because it doesn't absorb well. The hope is that by overdosing the hell out of it a few scant micrograms will work their way into your system.
Because of this lack of easy assimilation, B vitamins should probably be taken on a empty stomach, first thing in the morning.
While fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K can be taken pretty much any time, they should be ingested with some fat. That's why the whole idea of Vitamin D fortified skim milk is so forehead-smacking stupid.
When they remove the fat, they also inadvertently remove the fat-soluble Vitamin D, so they add it back in. The trouble is, the fat's already gone, so your system won't absorb it anyhow unless you eat it with a Twinkie or something that contains fat.
Vitamin C, however, is water soluble, but since it's not stored in the body, you should probably take it multiple times a day for best effect.
Are you starting to see why multivitamins are problematical? And it gets worse.
Vitamins and Minerals at War With Each Other
Chemically, a lot of vitamins and minerals don't like each other. Here's a short but by no means comprehensive list of certain vitamins and minerals and their effects on each other:
- Vitamin B12: If you take it with Vitamin C, B1, or copper, it disassembles it so that it's useless.
- Magnesium: If you take it with calcium, it interferes with the absorption of the magnesium. Oddly enough, lots of over-the-counter "bone strength" supplements pair magnesium and calcium together.
- Vitamin B9: If you take it with zinc, it makes insoluble complexes out of the B9, making it useless.
- Manganese: Taken with either copper or iron impairs absorption.
There are plenty of other interactions, some probably undiscovered. To be fair, there are plenty of positive interactions, too, but that doesn't detract from my main point that vitamins and minerals are far too finicky and competitive to be lumped into a single capsule and swallowed whenever it's convenient.
Okay, So What Do I Do?
If you really wanted to fortify your diet with the complete array of store-bought vitamins and nutrients, you could do it. First, you'd have to buy yourself all the individual vitamins and minerals. Then you'd have to buy one of those pill organizers that old bastards use to sort their heart meds.
Next, you'd have to set up some sort of elaborate spreadsheet and set your phone to alert you multiple times a day. The drawback is that you'd never ever know the touch of a woman again.
Unfortunately, the only viable alternative, at least at this time, lies with eating a good diet, but you knew that. Besides, it's easier said than done. Hell, that's why people take multivitamins in the first place. It doesn't have to be daunting, though. We can go super minimalist and try eating regularly from the following short list of super-nutrient foods:
- Organ meats (like liver, kidney, etc., if you can stomach them)
- Nuts and seeds
- Herbs and spices (these are an unpublicized mother lode of nutrients)
- Leafy vegetables, three in particular: Chard, kale, and spinach (kale is what they call an "acquired taste," but the other two go down easy).
- Cacao (similar to cocoa, but not the same. The former is cold pressed while the latter is roasted.)
- Fish and seafood in general
Many of these foods aren't generally what you see in "best foods" lists, but most of them pretty much have it all in terms of nutrients.
Alternately, you could augment your diet with a freeze-dried blend of super extracts of whole fruits and vegetables. For example, Biotest Superfood. You'd have to eat several pounds of expensive berries, fruits, and vegetables per day to match one small serving, and no amount of multivitamin tablets can outsmart natural sources in their nutritional profile.