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Vitamins and Supplements

Over half of Americans take a vitamin or supplement, whether it’s a classic vitamin, an herbal or botanical supplement, a probiotic, an amino acid or protein supplement, or an enzyme. However, for the majority, supplements are unnecessary. A balanced diet filled with a variety of nutritious foods is all that’s needed to maintain health. Nevertheless, supplements are sometimes useful.


Who benefits from vitamins and supplements?

  • Pregnant women and women of childbearing age: Pregnancy requires a specific mix of nutrients in order to ensure the health of mother and child. Women are encouraged to take a prenatal multivitamin during this time, which will help reduce the risk of birth defects and other problems. Nutrients of particular importance are folic acid, iron, vitamin D and calcium.
  • Individuals who have been diagnosed with a nutrient deficiency: Physical signs of nutrient deficiency often indicate a more severe deficiency, but lab tests can help catch trends and more moderate deficiencies. Doctors will screen for deficiencies (Iron, B12, etc.) based on your individual health situation.
  • Strict vegans: Vegans can become deficient in B12, since this nutrient is only found in animal products. Strict vegans who consume no animal meats, eggs, or dairy products may need to consider choosing foods fortified with B12 or take a separate supplement of B12 as necessary.
  • Individuals who receive very little sunlight: A vitamin D deficiency is quite common, and is more likely if you are rarely in direct sunlight.
  • People on certain medications: Medications, such as an acid reducer, can affect nutrient levels. If you’re on any daily medications, check with your doctor to see if it you could be at risk for a particular nutrient deficiency.
  • Individuals with certain health conditions: A number of different health conditions can affect nutrient levels. For example, those with age-related macular degeneration, bone issues (osteopenia or osteoporosis), or gastrointestinal disorders may need to take supplements. Other conditions can affect nutrient levels as well; consult your doctor about your individual situation.
  • Anyone on a very low-calorie diet: If you’re consistently consuming less than 1,200 calories a day, or have specific gaps in your diet, a supplement might be useful to fill this gap.

What are common types of supplements to consider?

  • Multivitamin: This is the most common type of supplement. Look for one tailored to your age group, such as seniors or children, as well as your gender. There are also situational multivitamins; for instance, there are multivitamins for people under high levels of stress.
  • Calcium and Vitamin D: These two nutrients work together to preserve bone health. If you’re lacking in natural sources of either of these, it could be helpful to consider a supplement. Additionally, post-menopausal women, as well as men past the age of 70 are prone to weakening bones. These individuals should talk to their doctors to make sure they’re getting enough of both calcium and vitamin D to keep their bones strong.
  • Folic Acid: Women of childbearing age, as well as pregnant women, should take folic acid. Taking a folic acid supplement greatly reduces the chances of brain and spinal cord birth defects called neural tube defects. Pregnant women may also want to consider an iron supplement, vitamin D, and a prenatal multivitamin.
  • B12: This nutrient is found exclusively in animal products, so vegans are at risk of developing a deficiency. It’s recommended that individuals who abstain from animal products consider a B12 supplement.
  • Omega-3s: For people with heart problems and inflammatory conditions, Omega-3s are useful. Due to their anti-inflammatory nature, they lower triglyceride concentration, decrease blood clotting, reduce blood pressure, and lessen the risk of stroke and heart failure.

What to look out for when you’re shopping.

  • Do your homework first. Make sure you know exactly why you’re taking the supplement, what the specific benefits will be to you personally, how much you’ll be taking, and how long you’ll be taking it. Check to make sure you’re not taking the supplement in place of a medication that’s been prescribed by your doctor. For fact sheets, any relevant warnings, and the evidence behind recommendations, visit the National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements.
  • Know the risks. Understand that dietary supplements aren’t regulated as strictly as medications, and therefore you can’t always be sure that what’s on the label is actually in the product in the amounts stated. Third-party quality testing groups can help make guide your purchasing decisions. Look for the logos of the National Sanitation Foundation, United States Pharmacopeia or Consumer Labs on the package, but remember that their testing is still not a guarantee that the supplement is safe or effective for your situation.
  • Read the supplement facts panel. Check the back of the bottle for the contents of the supplement, amount of the active ingredients, and for any fillers, binders, or flavorings. Many nutrients have upper limit of safety, so check how much active ingredient is present. Be sure to consider the amount present in all your supplements, including any fortified foods. Checking the back label also lets you know of any potential allergy triggers.

A balanced and diverse diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and quality protein may be all you need to maintain health. However, vitamins and supplements may beneficial to you and your specific health needs. A registered dietitian or nutritionist can help you evaluate your diet and determine if vitamins or supplements might benefit you.

For more advice on how to improve your nutrition, schedule a free 30 minute consultation with an El Camino Hospital Registered Dietitian. To schedule an appointment, call 650-940-7210.

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