Vitamins and supplements make a lot of health claims: boost your energy, lose weight, combat stress. But do they really work? And how effective are they?
Health experts say that vitamins and supplements definitely play a role in our diets, but it’s important to understand what they can and cannot do. Supplements — as the name suggests — should add to and complement your diet, but should not be expected to take the place of real, whole foods.
The role of vitamins and supplements in a healthy diet
The right vitamins and supplements can plug the nutritional gaps in your diet, but they won’t ensure your health and wellness all by themselves. The best source of vitamins and nutrients is your diet — particularly plant foods, which provide phytonutrients, fiber, and antioxidants that keep your body functioning properly. But it can sometimes be difficult to get enough vital nutrients from food alone, especially if you’re on a special diet or can’t eat certain foods. Vegetarians, for example, have a higher risk of being deficient in vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. Individuals who are lactose intolerant or who otherwise don’t consume dairy may be at risk of low calcium levels. In such cases, quality nutritional supplements may be necessary to help protect against any vitamin deficiencies.
Certain nutrient deficiencies are common even among people without any dietary restrictions, including vitamin B12, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D. Numerous studies have shown that vitamins and supplements can help make up for these shortages. In an analysis of 29 different studies, researchers found that supplementing with vitamin D and calcium reduced the risk of bone fractures by up to 24%. The best results were seen with doses of at least 1200 mg of calcium and 800 IUs of vitamin D daily.
Beyond filling in these nutritional gaps, other studies have confirmed the benefits of taking vitamins and supplements when they’re used in conjunction with a healthy diet.
Tips for using vitamins and supplements
- Take a look at your diet and make sure you’re getting a variety of nutrient-dense foods. When it comes to produce, it’s best to eat a variety of colors. Orange foods like carrots and sweet potatoes will provide different vitamins and nutrients than green foods like spinach and broccoli.
- Determine if a dietary makeover is in order. You can’t eat mostly fast food and junk food and expect supplements to make up for it. Start looking at simple ways to make your meals healthier.
- Identify any potential nutrient gaps in your diet. Are there entire food groups you avoid? If you don’t eat much meat, you could be lacking in vitamin B12. Most people don’t produce enough vitamin D or get enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diets.
- Determine where you might need some additional nutritional support .Genetic testing can reveal where you may naturally be at a greater risk of nutritional deficiency.
- Consider your health goals. Do you want to lose weight? Certain supplements, like green coffee bean, may improve your body’s ability to burn fat.
Other situations that may call for supplemental vitamins
- Iron and folic acid are recommended for women who are trying to conceive. Also watch your vitamin A intake, as excess vitamin A intake may cause birth defects.
- People over the age of 50 are advised to take supplemental vitamin B12.
- Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in women. Women need more iron than men to make up for the blood lost during menstruation. Women who are past menopause may not need iron supplements.
- Anyone on a very low-calorie diet or suffering from certain diseases may need supplements to compensate for what they aren’t getting from their diet.
How to take vitamins and supplements
It’s also important to make sure you understand how to take your vitamins and supplements in order to ensure their effectiveness. Calcium, for example, requires vitamin D in order to be absorbed by the body. Vitamin D should be taken with your largest meal of the day. And vitamins and supplements may not be effective if taken past their expiration dates.
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Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on May 12, 2017