Your body needs an array of vitamins and nutrients in order to function properly. Many of us take vitamin supplements in the belief they will give us all the nutrients we need. In truth, as their name suggests, nutritional supplements are just that — a supplement to your diet.
It is always best to get nutrients directly from food, but in the real world, that’s easier said than done. So is taking a daily supplement a good idea? Read on.
What qualifies as a dietary supplement?
According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, a nutritional supplement contains one or more dietary ingredients such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc. Dietary supplements can come in pill, capsule, tablet or liquid forms. With so many different vitamins (A through Z and then some), minerals, amino acids, micronutrients and macronutrients available in the marketplace, it can be difficult to know which offer genuine benefits and which are apt to be hype.
Who should take vitamin supplements?
Before starting any supplements regimen, it’s best to consult a doctor or dietitian.
If you already eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats and low-fat dairy products, you most likely do not need to take nutritional supplements because you are probably getting enough nutrition from your diet.
Nutritional supplements can be helpful if: you don’t eat a balanced diet; you are a vegetarian or vegan; you are a woman who is pregnant or may become pregnant; or you are an adult over the age of 50. It is recommended that adults over the age of 50 take a supplement of B-12, either separately or in a multivitamin. Women who are pregnant should take iron supplements either separately or in a prenatal vitamin, and women who may become pregnant are advised to take 400 micrograms per day of folic acid.
Can vitamin supplements replace certain foods?
Unfortunately, no — supplements are not intended as food substitutes because they cannot replicate the quality and variety of nutrients you get from whole foods. So, if you eat a fairly well-balanced diet, chances are that taking dietary supplements may not be worth the added effort or expense. Remember, whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, contain not just one, but a multitude of micronutrients that your body needs, along with dietary fiber that can help prevent certain diseases and promote healthy weight loss and maintenance. Plus, fruits and vegetables are a rich source of beneficial and naturally occurring phytochemicals and antioxidants that you will not get in nutritional supplements. Phytochemicals are helpful in protecting against cancer, heart disease and diabetes, while antioxidants stop the harmful effects of free radicals.
What’s the role of a multivitamin?
For those who eat reasonably well, taking a basic multivitamin supplement can be an efficient way to get a consistent supply of necessary vitamins and micronutrients. If your diet is terrible or you do not eat from all of the food groups, you should not depend on a multivitamin as your primary source of essential vitamins and minerals. Nor will taking a multivitamin make up for a diet based on nutritionally deficient processed and unhealthy foods. A multivitamin is a supplement at best — absolutely not a magical drug!
Which vitamins matter?
There are 13 essential vitamins that your body cannot make in sufficient amounts on its own, which means the way to get them is through food or supplements or in combination. A daily multivitamin will help you meet your recommended daily needs, but here is a list of the best food sources for these essential vitamins:
Vitamin A aids vision, immunity and red blood cell development. Eating plenty of carrots and leafy green vegetables will supply you with adequate levels of vitamin A. Since vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, it is important not to consume too much, so talk to your health care provider if you are thinking about taking a vitamin A supplement.
Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium, and therefore is important in keeping our bones healthy. Cereals fortified with this vitamin, as well as dairy products and fatty fish like salmon, contain vitamin D.
Protector of cells is one of vitamin E’s main roles, as well as being a powerful antioxidant that can be found in nuts, seeds, leafy greens and avocado.
Vitamin K helps clot blood, and your needs can be met by including vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, spinach and cauliflower, as well as fish, into your diet.
Vitamin C supports proper growth and repair of body tissues, and is thought to help fight the common cold. It has few effects if you take too much, because vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and is therefore not stored in the body. If you do not eat enough fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C, you could benefit from a vitamin C supplement.
There are 8 essential B vitamins, which round out the remainder of the 13 essentials. These vitamins are very important, as they acquire energy from the foods you eat, aid with red blood cell production, and help keep our nerves healthy. Animal sources such as poultry, fish, meat, eggs and dairy are key sources of B vitamins, making this group a wise decision for vegetarians and vegans to consider supplementing.
Not essential, but a good choice to consider supplementing, especially for growing children, teenagers and older women. Taking a calcium supplement is also recommended for anyone who is not eating enough foods rich in calcium, like low-fat dairy products and leafy green vegetables.
If you think you need an extra dose of any single vitamin, check with your doctor or dietitian before taking them in supplement form.
Is there any risk with taking vitamin supplements?
With anything you ingest, there can be risks associated. Having too much of certain vitamins can, in fact, be dangerous. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, are stored in your fat and liver cells. Since these vitamins are stored instead of excreted in urine, excessive intakes can accumulate and have harmful effects. An overdose of vitamins A, D, E or K can even be life-threatening, so you need to be aware not only of what vitamins you are taking, but also how much.
Water-soluble vitamins, such as B-complex vitamins and vitamin C, are less dangerous because they dissolve in water and are not stored by the body. If you consume too much, the excess is eliminated in urine.
However, it is important to talk to your health professional to determine which supplements you may benefit from, and to which might interfere with medications you are taking.
If you eat a balanced diet you may not need a supplement. For many, the best assurance that you are getting all of the essential vitamins is to take a daily multivitamin. Before taking specific supplements for any one vitamin, check with your doctor or dietitian.