Which Vitamins and Minerals to Buy? Oh My!
Most people seem a little confused about vitamin and mineral supplements. I get a lot questions about the “if” and “what” of these supplements. And it has been my experience that many of the people that think they aren’t confused about supplements have actually been given a lot of misinformation and are basing their purchasing decisions on that information from less than credible sources. So here is my attempt to clear up some of the common vitamin supplement misconceptions.
With many vitamin/mineral supplements on the market have you ever wondered how to choose the best one? Or have you ever wondered if you even need to take a vitamin/mineral supplement at all? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions then this entry is for you. Even if you think you are making good decisions when it comes to supplements, you may not be choosing as wisely as you think.
Question: Daily dosed vitamin/mineral supplements such as Centrum® and One a Day® are very popular, but are they necessary for good health?
The answer to that question is unfortunately not a straight “yes” or “no”. If you are eating a varied and healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains it is unlikely that you are deficient in necessary nutrients and most likely do not need to take a supplement, however, as I will discuss later, there are exceptions to this.
If you are not eating a healthy diet then taking a vitamin/mineral supplement may be a good idea to insure that you have an adequate intake of all essential nutrients. However, it is important to remember that supplementation will not make up for consuming an unhealthy diet. Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients that promote health. Although these phytonutrients are not necessary for your body to survive; they will improve your quality of life and decrease the risk of chronic diseases. So, even if you are taking a supplement, eat those peas and carrots.
Question: If I decide to take a daily vitamin/mineral supplement how do I choose which one to buy?
This is a more complicated question to answer than one might think. There are many forms of each vitamin and mineral and all forms are not equal in terms of bioavailability and toxicity.
Some supplements use the cheapest forms of nutrients possible. For example, some contain forms of minerals that are basically just metal shavings. These benefit your body little since they are difficult to absorb.
But it would be impossible for me to go over every form of every vitamin and mineral in this entry so I am only going to go over some general things to look for when purchasing a supplement.
We tend to have mentality that more is always better. Have you ever looked at the supplement facts box on a supplement label and been excited when you saw that it contained 2000% of the daily intake of vitamin C, thinking that if vitamin C is good for you then more vitamin C has to be better? Though this chain of thought may seem logical, it is unfortunately incorrect.
Consumers commonly make the “more is better” mistake when choosing which supplement to purchase. Some nutraceutical companies take advantage of this erroneous logic and give their products headway in the market by loading them with much higher quantities of nutrients than necessary.
So why is more not better? The effects of overdosing on vitamins and minerals can range in seriousness from wasting your money on nutrients that will just end up in your urine to death. These effects vary greatly depending on the nutrient and its form.
For example, at levels only 3 times the Recommended Dietary Allowance, preformed vitamin A (not to be confused with beta-carotene) can cause birth defects and each year children die from iron poisoning caused by eating iron supplements.
The best advice, to avoid overdosing or wasting your money, is to look for supplements with nutrient amounts around 100% of the DV.
Question: Who is more likely to require vitamin supplementation, and what nutrients are they likely to be lacking?
As I already mentioned, there are certain situations where supplementation is highly advisable. Here are a few of them.
Folic acid supplementation is a must for all women of child bearing age. Folic acid deficiency can lead to neural tube birth defects; 400 micrograms of this vitamin daily are needed to decrease the risk of these defects and the average American woman only consumes 240 micrograms. Because the neural tube closes within the first 28 days of pregnancy, before most women even know they are pregnant, it is generally too late to start folic acid supplementation once you find out you are pregnant. If you are deficient in folic acid, the damage to your child has already been done. That’s why it is absolutely critical for women to take a supplement containing folic acid if there is any chance, no matter how remote, that they may become pregnant. 2500-3000 infants are born in the U.S. each year with neural tube defects, 75% of these defects could have been avoided if the mothers had supplemented with folic acid.
Most women, and many men, do not get enough calcium. Most women get 600-800 mg of calcium daily, well below the Daily Recommended Intake. The effects of calcium deficiency usually take years to manifest, but when they do they can be devastating. Twenty-five million Americans have osteoporosis, and 25% of women over 50 develop osteoporosis. Don’t become one of these statistics, take a calcium supplement. Your body will only absorb about 500 mg of calcium at a time, so I recommend taking 1000 mg a day separated into 2 (500 mg) doses.
Some groups are especially prone to deficiencies including the elderly, alcoholics, vegans, and expecting mothers.
The elderly often do not eat as healthy as they should due to difficulty preparing meals. They also don’t absorb all their nutrients as well as when they were younger. So supplementation is usually a good idea for this group.
There are a few nutrients that are primarily found in animal products. Without careful planning, it is very easy for vegans to become deficient in vitamin B12, riboflavin, and zinc. Vegans should be mindful of this and if nothing else, take a B12 supplement.
Alcoholics are likely to be deficient in many vitamins, but if you are an alcoholic, supplementation usually isn’t your top concern.
Expecting mothers are another group that should take a supplement. If you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, prenatal vitamins are a must.
Although the supplement topic is one that I could discuss endlessly, since it is near and dear to my heart, I will end on this entry before I reach new levels of long-windedness.
Just remember to do a little research before choosing what supplement to buy and don’t get stuck in the “more is better” trap. And if you still have questions, you can ask your friendly neighborhood food scientist. We would be happy to give you an extraordinarily lengthy answer to what you thought was a simple question.