Everybody knows at least one person who preaches about the power of vitamin supplements, and another who compares them to snake oil. Step into the supplement aisle of your favorite grocer or pharmacy and you see row after row of supplements. The supply is seemingly endless; tablets, capsules, powders, and drinks abound.
Do they actually work, though? The answer is that it depends. Some work well and are extremely beneficial. Others work well when taken correctly; still others, not so much.
First Things First: Eat a Healthy Diet
We told you about this before, but it bears repeating. If you truly want to make sure that your body gets the nutrients it needs, start with a healthy diet. That means a diet heavy on plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as moderate amounts of lean protein and dairy. Whenever possible, eat real food instead of processed, and keep sugars and saturated fats to a minimum.
This does not mean not to take vitamin supplements. It does mean that a healthy diet is much more important and impactful to your overall health. After all, they are vitamin supplements, not vitamin replacements. The goal is supplementing a healthy diet, not replacing it.
One of the more popular supplement choices is the multivitamin, with many people treating it as a one-stop-shop to nutrition.
If you do not follow a healthy diet, and do not plan to adopt one, you probably want to start with a multivitamin supplement. If you already eat a well-balanced diet, you won’t see any real health benefits from taking a multivitamin.
Standard multivitamins include 100 percent of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of a variety of vitamins and minerals. However, few multivitamins include all of your body’s nutritional needs, as the pills are physically incapable of doing so. Most leave out calcium, iron, and magnesium. Of course, your body cannot absorb calcium and iron at the same time, so you would receive no benefit from a multivitamin containing those compounds together.
You also see experimental multivitamins, meaning supplements that make dubious health claims, such as those claiming to include antioxidants that reduce your cancer risk. Some of these added ingredients have no real effect while some may provide benefits, but we just don’t know yet, while others actually do harm. For example, many include over 400 IU of vitamin E, an amount that is 18 times above the recommended daily intake and potentially harmful. If you want a multivitamin, just take the standard one and save your money.
Finally, we have the multivitamins that you should always avoid: those with proprietary blends of various compounds. If the supplement doesn’t tell you how much it includes of each item, there is no way to use it safely.
The Benefits of Individual Vitamin Supplements
Vitamins and minerals support your body in a wide variety of ways, many of them working together. For example, vitamin E helps repair DNA while vitamin B12 helps build it. Vitamin A supports bone health, as do calcium and vitamin D.
Your body takes most of these nutrients from your food. Some, however, such as B12, are harder to come by. This is especially true for vegans and vegetarians, as some of the nutrients our bodies need only come from animal products. To ensure good health, people choosing these lifestyles need to take supplements.
Lab work helps reveal deficiencies, so you may benefit from talking to your healthcare provider about supplements. He or she can also guide you on best practices, as your body only absorbs some minerals if you ingest them in a particular way. Some must be absorbed along with fats, others counteract each other (such as calcium and iron), and others your body cannot absorb when in pill or capsule form.
Are There Risks with Vitamin Supplements?
No amount of supplements takes the place of a healthy diet. If you aren’t sure about what constitutes a healthy diet, talk to your doctor. He or she will provide a list of foods to support any health conditions you may have.
If you can’t get everything you need from your diet, such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12, take a supplement. Again, talk to your doctor.
Finally, do not rely on supplements alone, and do not take one of the specialty multivitamins, or those with a proprietary blend. At best, you waste your money. At worst, you damage your health.