Multivitamins vs. Individual Vitamins: Pros & Cons Of Each Supplement Routine
For many people, taking a multivitamin is the first step to starting a supplement regimen. Not only are multis broadly recommended, but they're easy to find, too. Just take a stroll through a drugstore and you'll find options galore.
However, the wellness potential of a supplement routine can extend much further than your daily multivitamin. Individual supplements—which are available in myriad forms and doses—are just as important for bolstering your regimen, addressing nutritional inadequacies, and targeting functional areas of health.
But when (and how) do you choose between multivitamins vs. individual vitamins, exactly? Here, learn about the pros and cons of each, plus tips on how to create the best supplement regimen for you.
If you're looking to get into supplements, multivitamins are an excellent place to start. A smartly formulated, comprehensive multivitamin conveniently offers the bulk of your daily essential vitamins and minerals in a single dose, says registered dietitian Victoria Whittington, R.D. "This can help save money and confusion [as to] whether you've taken all your vitamins each day," she adds.
With that said, most people can benefit from a multivitamin—about 40% of the American population1 fall well below daily nutritional requirements for multiple micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals).
As mbg's vice president of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, homes in further: "Consider the large percentages of U.S. adults failing to consume basic nutrient levels daily. These nutritional gaps or failure rates2 are 38% for calcium, 43% for magnesium, 33% for vitamin A, 11% for zinc, 10% for vitamin B6, 35% for vitamin C, 80% for vitamin E, and a whopping 93% for vitamin D. Translation: millions of adults not meeting their nutritional potential day in and day out."
The key is to choose a well-rounded, quality multivitamin/mineral product that offers nutrients in the right forms (i.e., bioavailable, gentle, etc.) and doses. This level of completeness will ensure your multi helps address your nutritional shortcomings, especially if you have a hard time hitting the daily recommended intake of five servings of fruits and veggies per day.
"Meanwhile, some nutrients like vitamin D and many others aren't even found in fruits and veggies, underscoring the pragmatic utility of smart supplementation further," explains Ferira. (Need help choosing the right multivitamin? Check out our guide right here.)
Despite the nutritional multitasking of quality multivitamins, there are several factors to consider. As Casey Kelley, M.D., ABoIM, functional physician and founder of Case Integrative Health, tells mbg: Multis are a great starting point for filling in nutritional gaps, but they aren't always very personalized. Meaning, some multis on the market may skimp on the vitamins and minerals you are missing in exact amounts. This can be especially true if you're following a certain diet, such as vegan or keto.
This is why it's so important to make sure the multivitamin you're buying is comprehensive (look for a full array of high-quality forms of vitamins, minerals, and even phytonutrients and botanical bioactives) and considered high-potency because it actually contains efficacious doses of each ingredient.
Additionally, depending on the formula, some multis may not deliver as advanced or as targeted benefits as some individual vitamins. (Hence the case for individual vitamins for targeted needs above and beyond your multi).
Absorption considerations are also in the mix. Case in point: "Many nutrients compete for absorption in your body," explains registered dietitian Joanna Foley, R.D., CLT. Thus, taking multiple nutrients at once in the form of a multivitamin may actually decrease the absorption of some vitamins or minerals, she notes.
Ferira explains further, "While this concept of competitive inhibition is true in a textbook sense, in practicality, this is only a real consideration when you're megadosing macrominerals (e.g., calcium, magnesium, and potassium) alongside or around the same time you're taking trace minerals."
Putting her nutrition scientist hat on, she divulges that, "no well-rounded or smartly formulated multi is megadosing macrominerals for this competitive inhibition reason, and also because these minerals are literally big—you would have to take loads of capsules or tablets."
She concludes and cautions: "In fact, this is precisely what stand-alone or mineral complexes (e.g., for bone health, sleep support, etc.) are for. Don't take these larger doses of macrominerals at the same time as your multi to optimize the absorption and utility of the nutrients in both products."
The pros of individual vitamins.
Speaking of the incremental benefits of utilizing individual vitamins, let's explore the pros. Ideally, you (and your health care practitioner partner) take full control over your supplement routine, designing and personalizing your own vitamin regimen for your problem areas of nutritional insufficiency and functional health support area needs.
This involves taking individual vitamins, minerals, and other bioactives (think phytonutrients, botanical and herbal extracts, omega-3s, peptides or amino acids, probiotic strains, etc.) in varying doses and forms, to not only fill nutritional gaps and achieve (and maintain) sufficiency but also for targeted health needs like brain, heart, immune, gut, beauty, and even eye health.*
And don't get confused: "Single vitamins as a concept is just semantics. It simply means leveraging stand-alone supplements or targeted complexes that are not a multivitamin for nutritional and overall health,"* Ferira explains.
A personalized vitamin regimen may also pave the way for optimal absorption. As Foley notes, taking individual supplements at separate times of the day (or with certain meals) may be better absorbed and utilized by your body. For instance, "both zinc and calcium compete with iron for absorption," shares Foley.
So, if you're taking large doses of zinc or calcium as stand-alone "vitamins" (i.e., they are technically minerals), it may be more beneficial to take zinc and calcium in the morning and iron midday or the evening rather than taking all three at the same time, she says.
The cons of individual vitamins.
A major drawback of taking individual vitamins is that you'll need to plan your day and nutrition ritual to swallow more pills. This can take some real intention, especially if you're frequently on the go. Not to mention, having multiple bottles in your medicine cabinet can create clutter, making it difficult to stay on top of your routine. Plus, it may become costly, albeit an investment in health and well-being.
Additionally, if you're taking multiple supplements with the same vitamins and minerals, in limited cases, you may end up taking more than you need—which can introduce negative side effects or simply exceed your needs altogether. For example, a multivitamin with iron combined with a separate stand-alone high-dose iron. Granted, that very scenario may be warranted in certain situations under health care supervision (e.g., perinatal nutrition or addressing an iron deficiency). Nutrition is so very personalized.
In other cases, you are intentionally seeking additional amounts of nutrients in stand-alone formulas in order to bolster the baseline dose you receive in your multi. Vitamin D3 would be a prime example of that since science demonstrates that 5,000 IU or more is needed daily for adults to achieve and maintain sufficiency.
Many vitamins and minerals have a tolerable upper intake level (UL), or the max daily intake that has been demonstrated to be safe to take. Higher intake levels over prolonged periods of time may lead to side effects. This is often considered a greater concern with fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), as they can accumulate in the body's fat tissue—instead of being excreted in the urine like water-soluble vitamins—according to Whittington. For example, "too much vitamin K may interfere with blood clotting," says Foley.
However, as Ferira once explained, making sweeping statements about the dangers of fat-soluble vitamins "lacks nuance and is an antiquated concept." In fact, it's quite difficult to reach toxic levels of fat-soluble vitamins, particularly vitamin D. She also says, "Every person is unique, so this is where consulting a health care provider makes a ton of sense." For example, Ferira shares that "if you're on medications related to blood clotting, then it's important to keep your vitamin K intake constant and blood biomarkers monitored. It's not about restriction but instead personalized approaches and monitoring."
As far as minerals go: Taking too much iron may lead to GI issues related to things moving along (or not) and abdominal discomfort and could affect zinc absorption, notes Foley. And while taking a harmful amount of magnesium is incredibly rare, it can lead to digestive upset, depending on the form.
The case for multis and individual vitamins peacefully coexisting.
And while the multi vs. individual vitamin conundrum is a common question, maybe we should be questioning the logic of discussing multivitamins and individual vitamins in silos, as if they are contrary. As Ferira shares, "The question of a multivitamin versus individual vitamins is a funny one to me. I get the query, but as a nutrition scientist, it also bewilders me. Pitting a multivitamin against individual vitamins (or minerals, phytonutrients, or other functional complexes) is predicated on the assumption that multis and individual vitamins or nutrients, say vitamin D3 and omega-3s, for example, are mutually exclusive."
She goes on to say that "people think these supplements somehow preclude or exclude each other. That is absolutely not the case. They are not only complementary but are often essential to pair in your daily nutritional strategy to meet micronutrient needs with flying colors, but to also fully leverage targeted functional benefits beyond just filling gaps."
Which vitamins to take besides a multi.
In order to create a supplement regimen that holistically minds your gaps while simultaneously promoting multiple organ systems and areas of health, your best bet is to pair a multi with individual supplements.*
The latter part entails mindfully selecting single vitamins that aren't usually found in certain multivitamins or for which higher dosing is nutritionally useful (i.e., required to achieve sufficiency) or functionally useful for things like cardiometabolic health parameters, immune resilience, gut function, and more.*
If you're not sure which nutrients to add to your lineup, consider the following nutrients. According to nationally representative data2, most folks could use more of these:
- Vitamin D: Your body relies on vitamin D for proper calcium absorption, which is essential for bone health (not to mention its multidimensional roles in supporting immune, muscle, and even cardiometabolic health).* However, most Americans don't get enough vitamin D through food, and relying on sunlight is dicey, explains Ferira. Thus, it's definitely worth considering an individual vitamin D3 supplement. (Here are mbg's top picks.)
- Vitamin B12: "The most common food sources [of] B12 are poultry, meat, fish, and dairy products," explains Kelley. But if you don't eat these foods due to a vegan or vegetarian diet, you "may benefit from supplementation, whether in a multivitamin or individual form,: says Kelley. "From cellular energy and folate metabolism to methylation and cognitive health, this essential B vitamin is a real multitasker,"* adds Ferira. You'll want to look for its bioactive methylated form, methylcobalamin.
- Folate: If you're pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive, you may benefit from an additional folate supplement3 (but always consult with your doctor before taking new supplements). According to Whittington, folate "is particularly important for fetal development during the early weeks of pregnancy," as it's essential for optimal neural health.* Furthermore, "for those with an MTHFR gene variant, bioactive methylated folate (5-MTHF) is critical for healthy folate and methionine cycles and ultimate methylation, this globally important pathway in the body,"* explains Ferira.
- Calcium: Calcium is a bulky, bone-essential mineral that is usually present in smaller amounts in multivitamins—often around 10% of your daily needs. "Sometimes it isn't included at all, such as in many men's multis," Foley explains. In this case, taking an individual calcium supplement, or a high-potency multivitamin for men and women, could be beneficial if you don't consume dairy products or if you want to support your bones or whole-body health (think cellular signaling, muscle contraction, neuronal health, etc.).*
- Iron: If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you might need additional iron support via individual supplements, says Kelley. (That's because optimally bioavailable heme iron is most abundantly found in lean meat and seafood, which are omitted from vegetarian/vegan diets.) The same goes if you're of menstruating age, as the body loses iron during each monthly period, she adds. And Ferira underscores the relevance of extra iron during pregnancy, since "your iron needs significantly increase to 27 milligrams a day."
- Omega-3s: Over 90% of Americans are failing to consume the EPA and DHA equivalent of two servings of fish a week (recommended for overall health). That's a big omega-3 gap in our nation. They are considered "essential," as the body is unable to make them, says Kelley. For this reason, it's important to consume foods rich in omega-3s, such as fish and flaxseeds. A targeted supplement made of sustainably sourced fish oil or algae can also help you support your overall omega-3 status for the sake of your heart, brain, and more.*
"Whatever supplements you choose to purchase, make sure the decision is a team effort with you and your doctor," encourages Kelley. This way, "you can find an option that's best optimized for you and your individual needs."
Generally, a quality multivitamin is an essential component of any supplement routine. "Think of your multi as your essential launchpad to complement a healthy diet," says Ferira. Why? A multi can help fill in numerous nutritional gaps, making it a beneficial product for most individuals. What's more, a well-formulated multi with high quality, potency, and botanicals in mind can also support various areas of health, from bones and our brain to beauty and longevity.*
Single vitamins, minerals, and related nutrients (e.g., omega-3s) also play pivotal roles in ensuring nutritional sufficiency in a targeted way, along with bolstering focused areas of health, depending on your specific needs.*
To support overall nutrient sufficiency, look for a comprehensive and clean multi formula. Take mbg's ultimate multivitamin+, for example: Our high-potency, vegan formula designed for women and men boasts an array of 33 active ingredients including vitamins and minerals we need on a daily basis (plus lesser-known bioactives, like longevity botanicals) to fully support whole-body health and wellness, all in just two daily capsules.*
Kirsten Nunez is a health and lifestyle journalist based in Beacon, New York. She has a Master of Science in Nutrition from Texas Woman's University and Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from SUNY Oneonta. Kirsten specializes in nutrition, fitness, food, and DIY; her work has been featured in a variety of publications, including eHow, SparkPeople, and international editions of Cosmopolitan. She also creates recipes for food product packaging.