Buying Vitamins

Your doctor has told you to take vitamins, or maybe you just have realized that you’re not always making the best nutritional choices. Whatever your reason, you find yourself in the aisle of your local grocery or the sales page at your favorite online shop, trying to choose the best vitamins. Buying vitamins can be tough because you have so many choices. What criteria should you use to choose?

Which vitamins do you need?

If your doctor recommends vitamins, she may say you need 10,000 IU of Vitamin D3 — or a multivitamin with iron. Ask for specific information if you’re not sure what you need. 

Multivitamins vary quite a bit in their formulations. For example, the three different brands of multivitamins whose labels are shown below all contain vitamin C, but one has 35 mg, one has 85 mg, and the other has 150 mg. One contains wild yam extract and another has 6 grams of added sugar. It’s worth reading the labels, including the vitamins and the other ingredients.

If you need 10,000 IU of vitamin D3, don’t just grab a bottle of multivitamins. If you just want a multivitamin for increased confidence, you may still want to get your doctor’s advice.


You may think that the more vitamins you get, the better, but this is not always true. For example, vitamins A, D, E, and K can build up to toxic levels in your body if you take in too much of them. 

It’s also important to recognize that vitamins are not regulated by the FDA the same way that medications are. The fact that something is sold as a vitamin supplement does not mean that it is safe. 

There are certifications that guarantee that the contents of the package you buy are accurately described. Independent laboratories check the purity of products and certify them. These are some of the organizations that provide a seal only if the product contains the ingredients it claims to have:

  • NSF International
  • US Pharmacopeia
  • Underwriters Laboratory
  • Consumer Lab

If you are pregnant, nursing, being treated for cancer, or for any other reason need to be extra careful, check with your primary care physician before you choose vitamin supplements.

Be realistic

Buying vitamins is not the equivalent of eating a balanced diet. They don’t protect you from cancer or strokes. They don’t give you more energy or increase your lifespan. Contrary to advertisements, they don’t give you greater joy, either.

Vitamins are certainly important. Go without vitamin C for too long and you can end up with scurvy. Vitamin D prevents rickets. Vitamin B deficiencies can lead to anemia. A reasonable healthy diet prevents these deficiencies.

It’s important not only to have realistic expectations, but also to keep from using your multivitamin as an excuse to make unhealthy choices. If you find yourself thinking that you don’t eat vegetables or exercise regularly or handle stress well “…but at least I take my vitamins,” then you are using those vitamins wrong.