In an ideal world, we would all eat the government-recommended nine servings of fresh produce everyday and prepare our meals in perfectly balanced proportions of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrate and fat. Instead, too often, meals are made up of ready-to-eat ingredients mixed with colors, fillers and artificial additives that make foods less nutritious than they might otherwise be.
As an antidote to less-than-ideal eating habits, many physicians counsel taking a daily supplement, but are these synthetic vitamin supplements really as effective at meeting our nutrient needs as they claim?
Vitamin and supplement companies brought in over $35 billion in sales in 2016 according to Statista. This massive industry has grown as lifestyle-related diseases have grown (alongside the promise of solving your health problems with a pill). Before you decide to throw your own money into the world of supplements, here’s what you need to know.
Spoiler: you probably don’t need everything they’re trying to sell you.
What do vitamins do?
The body uses vitamins to convert energy from food into usable energy for the body. Vitamins also assist in tissue repair and cell development.
There are 18 vitamins, 21 amino acids and 3 essential fatty acids that they body needs to ingest for healthy, normal functioning. The body does not produce these nutrients internally so they must be consumed from an outside source.
Fat-soluble vitamins, Vitamins A, D, E and K, bind to fat during digestion and are held in the body for later use. It’s less likely to be deficient in these if you’re consuming them in food as they’ll hold on pretty tenaciously to those fat cells until they’re needed. Water-soluble vitamins, on the other hand, are more easily taken up by cells, but they are also more easily released from the body, ie. every time you use the restroom. We tend to need more of these vitamins – B Vitamins, biotin, Vitamin C, niacin, folic acid and pantothenic acid – because of how easily they are excreted if not used quickly.
What vitamins should you take?
Every nutrient we need is available in food. Here’s the short list of which ones are important to put into your body and which are particularly easy to find in food-form. We have also included some popular minerals often included in multivitamins.
Vitamin A plays a role in blood cell development, eye and bone health and immunity. We need between 700 and 900mcg daily. Find it in kale, eggs and orange-hued foods: carrots, squash, pumpkin, sweet potato, melon and mango.
Vitamins B1, B2, B6 , B7 and B12
B-vitamins are key for metabolic health – turning food energy into useable fuel – mood regulation, cell regeneration, immune system health, nerve health, hormone production and a plethora of other key functions in the body. These are most readily absorbed from food, in particular, eggs, seafood, chicken, fortified grain products, dairy, legumes and nuts.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant. It aids the body in the production of collagen, has been suggested to reduce the risk for certain cancers and promote blood, skin, hair and joint health. While it has been implicated in improving immune health, Vitamin C will not cure or prevent a cold. It can help the body absorb nutrients but only if taken in small doses consistently throughout the day. Citrus, broccoli, kale, red peppers and Brussels sprouts are great food sources of this vitamin.
Vitamin D, which the body naturally produces in response to sun exposure, helps the body fight off infection, assists in nervous system function and promotes healthy bone growth. Vitamin D also helps the body use calcium, which can lower your risk for osteoporosis later in life.
We get the most out of Vitamin D in its natural form; however, many grain and dairy products are also fortified with this to ensure the majority of the population’s levels stay in a healthy range. Consider adding these, along with fortified soy products, mushrooms, eggs and fish into your diet.
Vitamin E protects fats in your body from damage, making it essentially a super-powered antioxidant. It contributes to muscle strength, nerve health and strong cellular walls (awesome). It’s found in fats and oils like olive oil, almonds, hazelnuts and avocado.
Often confused with potassium (a mineral, not a vitamin), Vitamin K is found in dark leafy greens and crucifers. Vitamin K is key for blood health: it promotes healthy clotting and wound healing, as well as healthy bone development. Surprisingly, butter from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows contains a significant amount of Vitamin K (put that on some broccoli for a double-whammy of K-goodness), but be aware that if you’re on blood thinners or birth control, too much Vitamin K could interrupt the work of your medications or cause clotting.
Sure, calcium supports strong bones and teeth but it’s also important for muscle function, blood and circulatory health, nervous system transmission and hormone production. You don’t have to drink milk to get this mineral; in addition to dairy products, calcium is also found in legumes, dark leafy greens and bone-in fish.
You’ve probably heard the most about folate in relation to pregnancy health and preventing neural tube defects in babies. Folic acid (also listed on labels as folate and folacin) is also an important player in cell growth throughout the body, pregnant or not. Many foods, including grain products, are fortified with this nutrient. It can also be found in orange juice, spinach, asparagus and legumes.
Often included in prenatal vitamins, or sold separately as its own supplement, iron is a key ingredient in healthy red blood cells and an adequate amount in the body means cells receive the oxygen they need. Heme iron, from blood, is most easily absorbed by the body and can be ingested from meat, oysters and organ meats. Legumes, nuts, seeds, raisins and iron-rich dark green veggies are great non-meat options, which contain non-heme iron.
Who should take vitamins?
The short answer is no. If you are eating a relatively healthy diet and paying moderate attention to your nutrient intake, you probably don’t need to supplement (especially not with a one-a-day). Your individual needs might vary, and the case for specific supplementation is something to discuss with your doctor. For instance, endurance athletes are at a greater risk for choline deficiency. It might be worth being tested if you’re worried your levels are out of balance.
Women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant are advised to take a supplement with folic acid, iron, calcium and Vitamin D as an insurance policy: these nutrients can be easily depleted during pregnancy and are essential for mom and baby’s health.
Vegetarians and vegans who don’t eat a balanced diet complete with varied legumes, nuts, seeds and diverse produce should consider an iron supplement, especially if they exhibit symptoms of anemia.
If you have a digestive disorder that prevents you from properly absorbing nutrients from food, supplemental nutrition might also be a good idea. Check with your healthcare provider.
Vitamin overdose can be dangerous
While rare, it’s possible to overdo it on Vitamins A, the B-complex, D and iron. These can cause liver toxicity, damage to kidneys and nerve problems; in extremely rare cases, death. Don’t be lulled into thinking that a little of a vitamin is a good thing, so extra must be an even better thing. Stick to the RDA for each nutrient and remember that what you eat and how much exposure to the sun you get will also up your levels.
Read labels thoroughly
Not every vitamin labeled “complete” is truly “complete”. In the Center for Science in the Public Interest 2016 list of worst offenders for mislabeling, VitaFusion’s MultiVites were lacking in nine essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B-1, B-2, and K and magnesium, zinc, copper and selenium.
Plus, labels will give you an idea of how much of a nutrient is in a single dose, which you’ll want to compare against the Tolerable Upper Intake Level, or UL, for each before taking it. If you’re already consuming a ton of produce, you might not need the supplement, lest you step into “too much of a good thing” territory. Avoid vitamin overdosing by reading labels thoroughly.
Supplements are meant to be regulated, but the FDA really only checks up if there are reports of illness or injury from use. To ensure you’re really getting what’s meant to be in each tablet, and that your supplements have been safety inspected, check that your brand has been tested by a third party, like USP or NSF.
There might be more garbage than nutrients in your vitamins
Many popular brands of vitamins, including seemingly innocuous ones like Centrum, contain binders, fillers and color that may be more problematic for the body than the vitamins they transport. These include polyethylene glycol, polyvinyl alcohol, BHT, modified corn starch, and coloring agents such as Yellow 6 Lake and titanium dioxide. Many of these brands also have levels far below the Recommended Daily Allowance; so low, in fact, they’re neglible and a real waste of money. Keep in mind that many of the vitamins included in these supplements are water-soluble, meaning they leave the body quite rapidly if not immediately used, so a “one-a-day” supplement really won’t give your body what it claims.
So, all that said, could being intentional with our food intake be more beneficial than taking supplements?
That ideal world we mentioned before, where everyone eats healthy, balanced meals with appropriate nutrient proportions, would also mean that farming methods wouldn’t leave foods genetically nutrient-devoid, nor soil entirely depleted of its natural mineral makeup.
While agriculture in our current landscape makes food less nutritious than it once was, a balanced diet – and near “balanced” nutrient intake – can be accomplished by eating intentionally from many different food groups and of many different colors (natural colors!) each day. Seek out different shades of greens, purples, reds, yellows and oranges, in addition to more neutral-toned produce like mushrooms, onions and garlic to get the bulk of what your body needs each day.
If you are pregnant, looking to become pregnant, nursing or have a medical condition that necessitates additional nutrition, talk to your medical practitioner about supplements that might be right for you. Just remember to follow the guidelines above: read labels, look for additives and take appropriate doses.