Should You Be Taking Vitamins?
As a dietitian, I get lots of questions from my adult patients about vitamin and mineral supplements. Should I be taking them? Do they do any good? How do I know what I need? These are the questions I hear most often. While there isn’t an answer that fits everyone, there are a few things to consider when deciding if you are going to take a vitamin or mineral supplement.
Special note: Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding have increased nutritional needs and should definitely be taking a prenatal vitamin. These women may also need additional iron or other minerals however a doctor will tell you if these are necessary. The bulk of this post is directed at women who aren’t currently pregnant or breastfeeding.
The most important thing to consider with dietary supplements is that they should not be used in place of foods in your diet. Foods should always come first and be your primary source of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, and all other nutrients.
The truth is that taking a supplement does not have the same health benefit for our bodies as eating a diet rich in whole foods. Research suggests that the components of foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts/seeds, work together in mysterious ways to provide us with a host of health benefits that the pill version can never replicate. If you simply take a pill each morning, you are missing out on all the added benefits that foods can provide.
If you are currently eating a balanced diet, you likely do not need a vitamin supplement. For those who may have room for improvement, a multivitamin supplement may be useful because it can help fill in the gaps. However, it shouldn’t be considered a “fix” because as stated before, you will never get the same benefits from a supplement as you would from trying to incorporate more nutritious foods into your diet.
When deciding to supplement your diet, it is always a safer bet to take a multivitamin preparation, rather than a host of separate pills. Taking too many different things could put you at risk for toxicities. If you decide to take a multivitamin, look for one that meets 100% of the Daily Value (%DV) for its components. Avoid any multivitamin that provides doses of any particular vitamin or mineral that greatly exceeds 100%.
If you suspect that certain areas of your diet are lacking, it may be helpful to consult a dietitian to see if a supplement is right for you. Don’t rely on people in health food stores to make recommendations. While many may be well informed, there are many more that don’t have any special training to help you in this area. It’s always better to speak with someone who is actually trained to give you healthy and safe guidance.
You may be wondering specifically about vitamin D, which has gotten a lot of play in the popular media lately. Researchers are still working to understand the benefits that vitamin D may have in preventing certain chronic diseases, not to mention certain cancers. We already know how important it is to bone health. I’ve recently had many patients who have read about these potential benefits and have decided to start taking high doses of the vitamin. I would caution anyone against doing this. If you are truly interested in taking supplemental vitamin D (and it may be absolutely appropriate to be doing so if you are deficient), you should ask your doctor to check your blood levels of 25-OH-vitamin D (the ‘OH’ stands for hydroxy). If your levels are low, then speak with a dietitian or your doctor about the appropriate level of supplementation for you.
In general, the following groups may benefit from dietary supplements but should speak with a doctor and/or registered dietitian for guidance.
- Females who are not meeting calcium or vitamin D needs
- Vegans and some people on vegetarian diets
- Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- People with food allergies/intolerances
- Picky eaters or anyone who avoids whole food groups
- Anyone on a very low-calorie diet (intentionally or unintentionally)
- People on certain medications