Nearly 9 in 10 Americans don’t get enough vitamins and minerals. Many nutritionists think this is a simple dietary challenge. Americans just need to incorporate more fresh produce, lean protein, and whole grains into their diets.
That’s easier said than done. Many people, particularly the poor, live in communities where grocery stores and restaurants lack healthy food options. And the economics don’t help. Nutrient-rich foods tend to be expensive, while calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods tend to be cheap.
Fortunately, solving America’s dietary shortfalls is possible with the help of nutritional supplements like daily multivitamins. They’re no substitute for healthy eating, but they’re a realistic way to plug the gaps in our diets.
Many Americans living in remote rural areas, or inner cities without supermarkets, struggle to access fresh, healthy foods. In Minneapolis, nearly 4 in 10 corner stores don’t sell fresh produce. For most Detroit residents, the nearest grocery store is twice as far as the closest fast-food joint. Half a million Houstonians live in neighborhoods so far from grocery stores they’re called “food deserts.”
Even among people who do have access to healthy food options, few have the luxury of planning every meal with the government’s dietary guidelines in hand. Even affluent health enthusiasts struggle to get all their recommended vitamins and nutrients from food alone. The most recent Dietary Guidelines issued by the federal government identify vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, fiber, and choline among the shortfall nutrients in our diets.
Let’s face it — try as we might, most of us fail to get enough of the nearly three dozen nutrients for which the federal government has established recommended daily intakes.
For instance, the government recommends that Americans consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily. To get that amount of folic acid, folks would need to eat over three cups of black-eyed peas or nearly six cups of cooked broccoli every single day.
Consuming the government-recommended 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day would take over 10 cups of cooked kale — or more than 7 cups of cottage cheese. Meeting advised daily vitamin D levels would mean eating nearly a dozen eggs or four pounds of Swiss cheese.
Those deficiencies can snowball over time and lead to serious health problems. A lack of vitamin A, for example, can leave people more prone to infections and eye problems. Vitamin D deficiencies can contribute to osteoporosis, depression, and cancer. A person who doesn’t get enough magnesium may develop high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Given these health risks, it’s no wonder that nutritionists constantly urge people to eat nutrient-rich foods like quinoa, chia seeds, oysters, almonds, black-eyed peas, and seaweed.
This advice is well-intentioned, but it isn’t practical. The foods richest in nutrients are also some of the most expensive. Quinoa, for example, costs $6 per pound. That’s tough to justify when a bag of rice costs one-tenth as much. A small pack of chia seeds runs $10.
It’s unrealistic to think that the 43 million Americans living in poverty would be able to afford these luxuries.
It’s certainly possible for people to get all of the nutrients they need from healthy eating. But for those who struggle to maintain a perfect diet, multivitamins can help fill in the gaps for about a dime a day.
Peer-reviewed research confirms that people who take multivitamins are healthier. One study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, tracked nearly 15,000 older men for over a decade. Those who took a multivitamin every day were less likely to develop cancer than those who did not. Another study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, discovered that women who took a multivitamin for at least three years were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
It would be wonderful to live in a world where everyone had the time, money, and motivation and opportunity to eat a healthy diet every day. But until that day arrives, folks would be wise to protect their health with a proven way to fill nutritional gaps — a multivitamin.
Steve Mister is president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition.