Do I Need To Take Vitamins?
Over 50% of American adults take a dietary supplement. The supplementation topic seems to be ever changing, as experts constantly debate whether extra vitamins lead to better health, longer life, or disease prevention. Even though the research constantly changes, there are facts that we should all know about vitamin supplements if they are to be used safely and effectively.
Let’s start with a couple of basic definitions. Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) are defined as intake levels of essential nutrients that are adequate to meet the needs of practically all healthy people. Going beyond the RDA’s can be okay as long as you don’t reach a point known as the Upper Intake Level (UL). The UL is the highest safe intake of a vitamin or mineral.
How much is too much when it comes to vitamins? While vitamins are essential to normal body function, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Iron, for example, is important in preventing anemia, but too much can increase risk for several diseases such as heart disease, cancer and other chronic conditions. Some research has shown a clear increase in prostate cancer when supplementing Vitamin E and Selenium, and even Vitamin A can be toxic when supplemented in high levels.
Don’t I need to take vitamins to make sure I get all the nutrients my body needs? Nutrient deficiencies are rare in most developed countries, largely due to supplementation and nutrition practices such as fortification. Even if a person isn’t taking a vitamin supplement, many foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals that have been added to them. Examples include milk, bread, cereal, pasta, rice, and juice.
How should I make sure I get the right kinds of nutrients, and the right amounts? Despite the food and health industry’s practices of adding nutrients to foods, many Americans still don’t consume proper amounts of nutrients in the recommended proportions. Surprisingly, nutrition deficiencies are not due to inadequate supplementation, but are more commonly caused by poor dietary choices. Choosing processed foods over whole foods can cause us to miss out on vital nutrients the body needs.
Consuming whole foods should be the first option when it comes to meeting nutrient needs. Benefits of eating whole foods include increased fiber intake and antioxidant consumption. There are hundreds of not so well known phytochemicals in plants with health benefits that far exceed any type of multivitamin. Anthocyanin in purple fruits like cabbage, Chlorophyll in green leafy vegetables, and Astaxanthin from red fruits are all examples of natural powerful substances that have health benefits beyond the vitamins or minerals these foods possess. Whole foods are also nature’s way of protecting against overconsumption of any particular vitamin or mineral. It’s much harder to consume too much of a vitamin or mineral from food than from a dietary supplement.
Are there times when supplementation is recommended? Of course there are some instances where supplementing a vitamin or mineral can be warranted to fill dietary gaps. Research continues to show that low Vitamin D levels increases mortality, especially among older adults. These individuals may benefit by supplementing Vitamin D. Additionally, those following a vegetarian or vegan diet void of meat, dairy and eggs should consider supplementing Vitamin B12 and iodine. There are likely other examples of prudent supplementation practices, but generally speaking, most Americans can get their nutrients from food.
The decision to supplement shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s best to be informed about what you’re eating (and lacking) before turning to vitamin supplements. Tools and food trackers such as myfitnesspal are great in providing data on your current diet. Beyond that, it would be wise to seek a professional opinion for your unique situation. Remember, we are what we eat…let’s be smart about what we put in our bodies.