Vitamin Supplements: Should You Be Taking Them?

Vitamin and mineral supplements are extremely available these days, which begs the question of whether you should be taking them or not. There are people out there who swear by vitamin supplements and others who do just fine without them. So should you be taking a supplement, and if so, which one? Here's some advice to help you determine what's best for you and what to look for in a supplement if you decide to take one.

Vitamin and Mineral Needs

The United States Department of Agriculture very specifically outlines the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamins and minerals based on age and sex. While this is good information for nutrition professionals to be aware of when working with patients who may be deficient in certain nutrients, it's not meant to be fixated upon in everyday life.

Harvard's Healthy Eating Plate outlines what a balanced diet should look like. It shows that every meal and snack should be comprised of one-fourth protein, one-fourth whole grain carbohydrate, and one-half fruits and veggies. If you're eating a balanced diet that's rich in fruits and veggies, you may not need to add supplements to your diet since these foods provide many of the vitamins and minerals you need.

Risk for Micronutrient Deficiencies

When entire food groups are eliminated from a diet, you can run into issues with micronutrient deficiencies. The only way to know for sure if you're deficient in a given vitamin or mineral is to have blood work done, or get a bone scan to see calcium levels.

There are, however, some people who tend to be at higher risk for micronutrient deficiencies. For instance, vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower intakes of vitamin B12, zinc, and iron, causing concern for potential deficiency. Additionally, calcium can be a nutrient of concern for vegans. Although, studies have also shown that the overall health of vegans and vegetarians is comparable to, if not better, than nonvegetarians.

An important point to note is that while we know the intake of certain nutrients can affect the amount that's available to our bodies, science has only skimmed the surface of the complicated process that is metabolism. Anomalies, such as Asian cultures that barely consume dairy of any kind but have perfectly adequate bone health, exist, illustrating the many questions that have yet to be answered.

What to Look for in Vitamin Supplements

If you're concerned that you may not be consuming enough of a certain vitamin or mineral, there is nothing wrong with seeking the aid of a supplement. You can either select a supplement for that individual vitamin or mineral, or go with a complete multivitamin with minerals. You may want to consider going with a complete multivitamin if you want to consume fewer pills. Make sure to read the label first to ensure that the nutrients you're looking for are in the product you're interested in—particularly with multivitamins because some products don't include minerals or will exclude certain minerals like iron.

Keep in mind that the dietary supplements you find at your local supplement or grocery store aren't approved for safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In other words, there's no way for you to know exactly what you're buying and consuming. The U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) is an organization that tests and verifies the quality of supplements, so products with a USP verification are the most trustworthy.

While the only way to truly tell if you're deficient in a given vitamin or nutrient is to get blood work done by your doctor, taking a look at your diet is a good place to start. If you are omitting entire food groups or not eating a balanced diet, as outlined above, you may be at risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. While trying to eat right is the best first line of defense, adding a vitamin supplement or multivitamin with minerals to your daily routine can also be a good route—just be sure to do your research.

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