Registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) are often asked ‘What kind of multi-vitamin or supplements should I be taking, especially if I don’t always eat well?’ The short answer is something you already may know, but may not want to hear. If you eat a well-balanced, varied diet and are a healthy, normal functioning individual, there is no need for you to have to take a vitamin or mineral supplement. The operative word, of course, is “if” in the latter sentence. It is essential to try to get all the nutrients the body needs from whole, fresh foods. Science and research has not been able to identify all the synergistic benefits whole food provides, therefore, it is important to understand that isolating a vitamin or mineral and taking it by itself will never be as powerful as the total package of vitamin and minerals in fresh food.
However, there are some basic facts, important information, and general guidelines everyone should keep in mind. If you think you may need a supplement or want to learn more about the role of vitamins and minerals and how they may be helpful to you, here are some basic and simple tips. Welcome to supplements 101.
What are Vitamins and Minerals?
We have all read the definition of vitamins and minerals in general health class or anatomy and physiology. Maybe they don’t mean a whole lot and maybe taking biochemistry and understanding the exact mechanism of action like I learned is not on your agenda, and that’s o.k. That is where I can help. What you do need to know on a very basic level is that vitamins and minerals have multiple and varied functions throughout the body and are very important in maintaining and encouraging a healthy system. Vitamins are vital for life and gained their nomenclature from a shortened form of identifying “vital amine” groups.
All vitamins and minerals serve an important purpose or role in our health and systemic functions, but they themselves do not provide calories, and, therefore, do not directly provide energy. Think of them as assistants to our metabolic and systemic functions. For the sake of saving some trees, I am just going to touch base on some especially important ones that we may not be getting enough of, their function, how much we need, and where we can get it.
o bone and teeth structure through remodeling and reabsorptionvascular contraction and vasodilation (think: heart constricting and expanding)
o muscle function
o nerve transmission
o intracellular signaling and hormonal secretion
o the body uses bone tissue as a reservoir and source of calcium in order to maintain constant concentrations of calcium in blood, muscle, and intercellular fluid
Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA):
Where to find:
o Chinese cabbage
o fortified foods like orange juice, other fruit juices and drinks, tofu, grains, and cereals
o low-fat dairy like yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk
o http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/calcium has a great chart listing calcium amounts in several specific foods
o Eat it up: Only 3-4 servings of these foods is needed to meet the daily requirement
Other tidbits to know:
o If you do take a supplement, there are two forms:
• Calcium carbonate – depends on stomach acid and should not be consumed with food in order to increase absorption, usually best for those over 40 years old.
• Calcium citrate—requires food, may be useful for people with achlorhydria, inflammatory bowel disease, or absorption disorders.
o Vitamin D, zinc, magnesium or a combination is often found in calcium supplements, which is fine; they may help increase absorption and give an added benefit in all of their many functions.
o Bottom Line: Get calcium from whole foods but if taking a supplement, remember the body can only absorb approximately 500 mg at a time, so split up the typical two supplements recommended if they are each 500 mg pills.
o relates to the ability of red blood cells to adequately carry oxygen used throughout the entire body.
o needed by the body to make hemoglobin-rich blood, which transports oxygen to the cells and prevents fatigue.
o needed for adenosine triphosphate production (ATP), which is essential for cellular energy and proper cell function.
o often depleted through sweat and bleeding of the digestive tract from the jarring motion of exercise.
o if you were to get pregnant, iron is needed for proper placenta development and prevention of pre-term and low birth weight babies; it is also essential during the first eight months of development for brain growth. The effects of anemia may be associated with developmental delays in both motor and cognitive abilities.
o 14 to 18 year old male = 11mg/day; female 15mg/day
o 19 to 50 year old male = 8 mg/day; female18 g/day (pregnancy, lactating 27, 9 respectively)
Where to find:
o Vegetables—spinach, okra, sweet potatoes, squash and white potatoes
o Fruits—dried figs, raisins, prunes, tomato juice, prune juice
o Grains and Legumes—dried peas, beans, legumes, whole grain bread, cereals, fortified foods, brown rice, enriched pasta, tofu, soybeans
o Lean meats and seafood—lean beef, poultry, shellfish
Other tidbits to know:
o If you do take a supplement, there are two forms: ferrous and ferric. Ferrous iron salts (ferrous fumarate, ferrous sulfate, and ferrous gluconate) are the best absorbed forms of iron supplements.
o Elemental iron is the amount of iron in a supplement that is available for absorption.
o Bottom Line: Get iron from whole foods, but if taking a supplement, those who are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant do need higher amounts as well as athletes who participate in intense activity. Consuming an additional 30% more iron to prevent iron deficiency anemia may be necessary.
o Also, eat iron rich foods with vitamin C (i.e. spinach salad with mandarin oranges) to increase the body’s ability to absorb it.
Folate (synthetic version = folic acid)
o Folate is a B-complex vitamin needed by the body to manufacture red blood cells.
o Helps prevent homocysteine build-up in your blood (which may lead to cardiovascular disease)
o supports cell production, especially for your skin
o allows nerves to function properly
o helps prevent osteoporosis-related bone fractures
o helps prevent dementia related diseases including Alzheimer’s disease
RDA: 14 to 50 year old males and females= 400 µg/day-or micrograms-mcg (600 µg/day pregnancy, lactation 500 µg/day)
Where to find:
o Kidney beans
o Orange juice
Other tidbits to know:
o If you do take a supplement, it will be in the form of folic acid. It should not exceed 1,000 micrograms (μg) per day to prevent folic acid from triggering symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency.
Bottom Line: Get folate from whole foods, but if taking a supplement, those who are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant do check with a doctor or RDN before taking supplements.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Again, calcium, iron, and folate are all found naturally in whole foods, mainly whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The more variety you eat in a well-balanced diet, the better (within your calorie needs)! If you do decide to consume supplements, know that the FDA does not regulate them, so buyers beware. It is important to be aware of what you are taking, where it comes from, and how much to take. Ask lots of questions, buy trusted brands, and don’t be tempted with clever health promotion claims. Concentrate on consuming whole, fresh foods. Keep the money in your pocket (unless advised by a physician or RDN to take specific supplements due to a deficiency) and bypass the vitamin shops, health food stores, “magic supplements,” tonics, and marketing claims for supplements that bombard us daily.
State of Franklin Healthcare Associates
Hess, MA. Pocket Supermarket Guide, 3rd edition. American Dietetic Association 2005