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Multivitamins: How to Pick the Right Supplement

Skipping That Little Pill? Big Mistake

You don’t head to the gym or out for a jog without prepping properly: sneakers, iPod, water bottle. But a multivitamin? Umm…Chances are, you don’t pop one daily — almost half of women under age 40 don’t, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Big mistake, since more than 90 percent of women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s don’t meet their vitamin and mineral requirements through diet alone — and you need that multi even more if you exercise. “Vigorous workouts raise your body’s vitamin and mineral requirements, so it’s practically guaranteed that you won’t get enough nutrients from food,” says sports nutritionist Dawn Weatherwax-Fall, RD, coauthor of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sports Nutrition. Here are surprising new reasons that a multi is a must — along with how to find the best brand.

Pick a Better Bottle

Drugstores carry more vitamins than nail-polish shades, but that doesn’t mean you can pick just any old one. ConsumerLab.com recently found that more than half of the 21 multis they tested didn’t contain the nutrient amounts listed on the label. Even worse, some capsules failed to release ingredients properly or were contaminated with toxic lead. So how do you choose? The highest-quality products tend to be store brands from major chains (Target, Wal-Mart, and Rite Aid) or big-name companies (One A Day, Vitamin World, Centrum, and Puritan’s Pride). In addition, check the label for these three criteria:

  • At least 600 IUs vitamin D. Don’t settle for the 400 IUs in some multis. You need more of this supervitamin, which promotes strong bones, boosts immunity, regulates blood pressure and, in one study, was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of breast cancer.
  • 18 milligrams iron. Young women need this amount to make up for what they lose every month through menstruation, yet many multis have no iron at all because men and older women can get too much.
  • 400 micrograms folic acid. Anything less than this daily dose may not be enough to help prevent birth defects.

Our Pick

No time to check labels? We asked Tod Cooperman, MD, president of ConsumerLab.com, for two multis you can trust: One A Day Women’s and GNC Women’s Ultra Mega.

1 Pill, 5 Reasons to Pop It

1. Curb cravings.

A multi may make you less hungry when you’re dieting, reveals a new Canadian study. Researchers think that it short-circuits the body’s natural response to calorie cutting, which is to boost appetite to counter vitamin deficiencies.

2. Keep energy up.

A good vitamin prevents low iron, which makes you drag during workouts and may also cause hair loss, according to a French study. One in 10 women is low in iron, with vegetarians, vegans, endurance athletes, and anyone with heavy periods being especially vulnerable.

3. Safeguard your heart.

The ingredients in a multi have been linked to a lower heart disease risk. But it’s an aid to — not a substitute for — fruits and veggies, which may deliver other disease-fighting compounds.

4. Stave off breast cancer.

Taking a multi may cancel out the breast cancer risk incurred by drinking alcohol. In a recent study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, women who had a daily cocktail and took a multi had a lower risk than those who didn’t pop the pill. The supplement may correct alcohol-triggered deficits of B vitamins that encourage tumor development.

5. Get pregnant.

Multi users have a 41 percent lower risk of ovulatory infertility, finds a Harvard School of Public Health study. Folic acid and other B vitamins appear to help promote healthy ovulation.

Truth or Vita-Myth?

POP QUIZ: If you work out hard, you need tons of supplements, right? Not necessarily, but certain capsules and products can help your endurance on those long runs. Take our quiz to separate fact from fiction.

True or False: Athletes should take extra B vitamin supplements.

FALSE. New research shows that intense exercise increases your body’s need for several B vitamins, which help repair muscle damage and reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to increased heart disease risk that rises in people who exercise for more than 12 hours weekly. But don’t pop a separate B supplement. Just be sure your multi has at least 100 percent of the daily values (DV) for riboflavin, B6, B12, and folic acid, says Melinda M. Manore, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition and exercise sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Working out puts you at special risk for vitamin D deficiency.

TRUE. Over half of women don’t get enough D, but athletes are especially likely to have low levels, says a review from the University of Wyoming at Laramie. Researchers think they slather on more sunscreen than the average woman (UV rays are a key source of D). Low D may affect muscle function and bone health (it’s crucial for absorbing calcium to protect bones during high-impact sports). All women should aim for at least 1,000 IUs daily, but active women need up to 2,000 IUs. When choosing a D supplement, be sure to factor in what you get from your multi and calcium supplements.

All those different energy bars do the same thing.

FALSE. Many bars are high in protein and fat, which may upset your stomach — the last thing you need in a marathon. You need a bar that packs highly digestible carbs, which convert quickly to glucose to fuel working muscles. Have 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour to keep you truckin’ (one good bet: Power Bar Performance Bars). After exercise, a bar with 6 to 10 grams of protein (such as a Clif bar) will help rebuild broken muscle fibers. The best bars have sodium and potassium to replace salts you sweat out but aren’t overloaded with vitamins you already get from your multi.

Answers to Your Biggest Supplement Questions

“Why do I need extra calcium?”

Multis don’t have the recommended 1,000 milligrams because the pill would be too big to swallow (this mineral has large molecules!). To get the calcium you need, take a separate supplement of 200 to 400 mg that also has 100 to 200 IUs of vitamin D to aid absorption. Just don’t pop several calcium pills simultaneously or at the same time as your multi: Your body can absorb calcium in small doses only.

“Why does my multivitamin turn my pee such a bright shade of yellow?”

“Contrary to common belief, it doesn’t mean you’re urinating away nutrients,” Dawn Weatherwax-Fall says. “It’s a healthy sign that your body is metabolizing the B vitamins in your multi and processing out any excess.”

“Can I OD on vitamins if I also eat fortified cereal?”

Yes. You could get too much folic acid. So stick with your daily multi and skip the cereal, or take your multi every other day. (Hint: To remember which day to take your multi, jot it down in your planner.)

“Do vitamins expire?”

You bet. When buying, make sure the expiration date is at least a year away. Once you bring the bottle home, store it in a cool place out of direct sunlight.

“Does it matter when I take my multi?”

Yes. It’s best to take it after a meal, because the food in your belly boosts your body’s uptake of nutrients.