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Millions of Americans take multivitamins in the name of better health. In spite of conflicting reports that these supplements combat chronic conditions, top health experts recommend daily multivitamins for nearly everyone.

Read on to find out why multivitamins matter, how to pick the best one, and how to bypass potential problems from the most popular dietary supplements.

Multivitamins: Bridging (Some) Nutrient Gaps

A balanced diet goes a long way to getting the vitamins and minerals you need to feel good and head off health problems. Trouble is, very few people eat right every day.

“When we compare recommendations for vitamin and mineral intakes to actual consumption, many Americans do not even come close to getting what they need for several nutrients,” says Meir Stampfer, MD, DrPH, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005, adults are often deficient in:

“Certain groups run even higher risks for vitamin and mineral deficits,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory, and professor of nutrition at Tufts University.

Vitamin Shortfall: Who’s at Risk?

Over time, small discrepancies in nutrient intakes can prove problematic for a person, particularly for women in their childbearing years, strict vegetarians, and the elderly.

For instance, shortfalls of iron in the childbearing years may lead to anemia. Too little folic acid very early in pregnancy increases the risk of neural tube defects in developing babies. And vitamin B12 deficits, responsible for irreversible nerve damage and faulty cognition, are more likely in people who avoid animal foods, and in people over age 50, whose bodies are often less efficient at absorbing vitamin B12.

Stampfer and Blumberg advocate multivitamins as a way to shore up diets low in nutrients. But, they warn that multivitamins are dietary supplements, not substitutes for healthy eating.

That’s because multivitamins lack a number of beneficial compounds for wellness, including phytonutrients, and fiber, found in plant foods. Multivitamins also typically fall short of the recommend daily amount of calcium and other important vitamins and minerals.

Think of multivitamins as an insurance policy, but don’t fool yourself into thinking dietary supplements measure up to the benefits of maintaining a healthy body weight, eating right, and getting regular physical activity, Blumberg tells WebMD.

“Overall, multivitamins are a minor component of good health, but worthy ones,” Stampfer says.

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