Last reviewed and revised February 27, 2013
Just the other day, I saw a television commercial that asked, "Should a man take the same multivitamin as a woman?"
The answer seemed obvious: of course not. As a woman, you should buy the "Women's Health" version, while men should stick with the vitamin designed for them.
And that got me thinking: What are the differences between vitamins that are marketed to men versus women?
There are obvious anatomical differences between men and women. And those differences translate into different health needs.
There are also diseases that seem to affect men and women differently even when the anatomy is similar. Heart disease is a good example. Men tend to develop "typical" symptoms (including chest pressure or pain), while women may be more likely to complain of weakness or shortness of breath.
But how do gender differences in health and disease translate into the vitamins we should take?
Many people take a daily multivitamin as a sort of "insurance" to make up for the essential nutrients that could be missing from their diets. And many doctors recommend taking a multivitamin. But, it's reasonable to ask who needs to take a daily multivitamin.
In fact, only certain groups of people clearly need to take vitamins. Most of these people only need one or two specific vitamins, not the 20 or more contained in many multivitamins.
For people with a specific deficiency, such as iron deficiency anemia, a supplement makes sense. Supplements may be helpful for people in certain high risk groups:
Let's get back to that vitamin commercial. When it comes to vital nutrients, men and women have similar, though not identical, needs. In fact, if you compare the average multivitamin designed for a woman with one marketed to men, you’ll find they are nearly identical.
I compared the ingredients for a leading brand of multivitamins that comes in several versions based depending on a person's age and gender. The ingredients for the one promoted to adult women were nearly identical to the one promoted to men. But, the amounts of vitamins varied. Of the vitamins listed, the amounts were identical for eight, slightly different for seven, and significantly different for only six. For example:
Overall, most of the differences between these multivitamins were minor. And where there were differences, they were not always based on good evidence.
Women who are not iron deficient do not need extra iron (and iron supplements can cause stomach upset or other problems in certain people).
Calcium and vitamin D supplements are already recommended for women whose diets do not contain adequate amounts. There's no need to take a multivitamin for that purpose. Besides, most multivitamins have less than the 1,000 milligrams to 1,200 milligrams per day that's recommended to help them maintain healthy bones.
The other differences have little justification as far as I can tell.
Vitamins are commonly considered a safe, inexpensive way to make sure your intake of vital nutrients is adequate. But for many people, they are a waste of effort — and money.
For women, calcium, vitamin D and, for some, iron are the big players. For most men, it's not clear that taking a multivitamin will improve health.
In my view, highlighting how important it is for men and women to take different vitamins is more about marketing than improving health. So talk to your doctor about your particular situation and nutritional needs. You may find that the question is less about which multivitamin is best and more about whether you need to take one at all.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.