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Multivitamins benefits: Why you might need a supplement

Diet should always come first, but some still miss out on important vitamins or minerals due to their dietary requirements or lifestyle. Here Dr. Sarah Brewer explains how nutrients can help.

While diet should always come first, many people miss out on key nutrients because they are cutting back to lose weight, skip meals due to time pressures, or avoid certain items because of intolerances or ethical, religious or health reasons. Also, over the age of 50 the ability to absorb certain nutrients decreases.

If you don't manage to meet the 5-a-day fruit and veg guidelines, and don't eat two portions of fish (one of which is oily) per week, then a multivitamin and mineral supplement can help.

Did you know?

Less than a third of adults (31%) meet the 5-a-day recommendation for fruit and veg, while the average consumption of oily fish is just 64g per week – less than half the recommended 140g.1 Many people eat no oily fish at all.

Are you missing key nutrients?

The National Diet and Nutrition Surveys (NDNS) in the UK highlight that significant numbers of people do not get all the vitamins and minerals they need from their food. Deficiencies are common for selenium (lack of which can lead to reduced immunity), iron (leading to anaemia), magnesium (which can cause fatigue and constipation) and calcium (affecting bone strength).2 Low vitamin D levels are especially concerning, with 17% of adults having low vitamin D status over the whole year, not just during the winter months – a figure that is likely to worsen as a result of isolating during the current pandemic.

In a significant number of cases, vitamin and mineral intakes are so low they don't even meet the Lower Reference Nutrient Intake (LRNI) which is needed to prevent deficiency diseases such as iron-deficiency anaemia.

 Micronutrient
 Adults with intakes below the LRNI*
 Vitamin A  13%
 Riboflavin (B2)  10%
 Folate
 5%
 Iron
 15%
 Calcium  9%
 Magnesium  13%
 Potassium  17%
 Iodine
 12%
 Selenium
 36%
 Zinc
 8%

*the percentage not meeting the RNI will be greater

Decreasing food quality

It's not just our eating habits that are the problem. Analyses published in 2009 suggested that the nutritional content of some fruit and veg has dropped significantly over the last 70 years. For example, levels of iron, copper and calcium in vegetables have decreased by up to 76% since 1940, levels of magnesium in vegetables have dropped by 25% and calcium and copper by 75%, while in fruit iron has dropped by 25% and copper by 20%.3

How age affects nutrient absorption

Your ability to absorb certain vitamins and minerals decreases with age due to lower acidity in the stomach.4 This can contribute to a number of nutritional deficiencies, including folic acid, vitamin B12, iron, zinc and calcium. In fact, by the age of 75, as many as 60% of people are deficient in vitamin B12.5

Multivitamin and mineral supplements designed for people aged 50+ and 70+ therefore include different blends of micronutrients which take our changing needs into account. For more information see Why do you need stronger vitamins after the age of 50?

Multivitamins and the severity and duration of illness

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can have a profound effect on your immunity. A recent study from Oregon State University found that people aged 55 and over who took a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement for 12 weeks had significantly better ability to fight off infections than those taking a placebo.6

The multivitamin used in the study included micronutrients that are known to help immunity – vitamins A, D, E, B6, B12, folate and a high dose of vitamin C (1000 mg) plus iron, copper, zinc and selenium.

Although those taking the supplement were just as likely to become sick during the study as those on placebo, their symptoms were much less severe and went away more quickly. As a result, the number of sick days in those taking the multivitamin was less than 3, compared to more than 6 for those taking placebo.

One theory is that, as people get older, they develop more vitamin and mineral deficiencies that contribute to reduced immunity with higher levels of inflammation. Taking a multivitamin may help to replenish deficiencies so your immune system can work at optimum efficiency.

Multivitamins and heart health

A study that followed over 18,500 male doctors (who were aged 40 or over) found that those who took multivitamins for at least 20 years were almost half as likely (44%) to experience a heart attack or stroke as those who hadn't taken a multivitamin long-term, suggesting that long-term use of micronutrient supplements appeared to offer significant cardiovascular protection.7

A similar study suggested that women who used multivitamins and minerals for at least 3 years had a 35% lower risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke than those not taking them.8

Medical advice

A scientific review of over 150 clinical trials published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that lack of many vitamins is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, birth defects, osteoporosis, bone fractures and other major chronic health problems.9 In an accompanying paper, the authors actually state that 'Pending strong evidence of effectiveness from randomised trials, it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements.'10

Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible, supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.