If you’ve been to a drugstore or health food store recently, you’ve seen them – rows and rows of nutritional supplements. Many people take one or more of these supplements to get the vitamins and minerals they need.
One of the most popular is a multivitamin. A multivitamin is a supplement containing vitamins and minerals that you can take every day to help fill gaps in your diet. Multivitamins are available in pill, capsule, liquid, powder, and gummy forms and usually contain 20–30 different ingredients. However, not all multivitamin supplements contain the same ingredients in the same quantities.
While there are situations where you might need a vitamin or mineral supplement, it’s best to get nutrients from whole food sources, rather than bottled supplements. Let’s look at why.
Whole Foods Give You Nutrients in a Balanced Form
Ideally, you would get most of your vitamins and minerals from the food you eat and wouldn’t need a supplement. Whole foods are better in every regard – they contain nutrients in a balanced form — in a form your body can best recognize and use.
Whole foods are also a safer and more effective way to meet your body’s nutritional needs. The nutrients in the food mother nature produce contain nutrients in a balanced form — the form your body can best recognize and use. The nutrients in foods work together to ensure you get the full benefits. For example, fat in foods helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. If you take a supplement of these vitamins without a fat source, you’ll only absorb a small percentage of that vitamin.
Plus, when you eat whole foods, you get more than the vitamins and minerals from that food; you also get fiber, protein, healthy fats, and other nutrients that will help your body function properly. Isn’t that the best way?
Supplements Can’t Capture the Full Benefits that Whole Food Offer
If you don’t like broccoli or don’t have time to prepare it, you might think taking a broccoli supplement is a shortcut. Although broccoli supplements are available on sites like Amazon, they lack a key enzyme in broccoli required to tap into its full benefits. You need myrosinase to convert glucosinolates into isothiocyanates, compounds that have potential anti-cancer benefits and anti-inflammatory activity. Without this enzyme, you won’t get the same health benefits as eating fresh broccoli. The best way to get your daily dose of myrosinase is by eating fresh broccoli or broccoli sprouts every day.
Additionally, plant-based foods are a complex blend of minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients that a supplement can’t replicate while supplements contain isolated components of food. They don’t contain every natural chemical or enzyme in a food. Therefore, you can’t extrapolate from food to supplements and say you’re getting the full health benefits of that food.
Taking Supplements Can Cause Imbalances
When you take a high dose of one vitamin or mineral, it can affect the absorption or bioavailability of another. When you swallow a zinc supplement, for example, you consume large quantities of zinc in a concentrated form. Your body absorbs zinc and copper from the same receptors. With all that zinc around, your body sucks up zinc and absorbs less copper. This can lead to a dangerous copper deficiency.
At one time, denture adhesives contained zinc. Some denture wearers developed debilitating and even fatal copper deficiency while using zinc-based denture creams. The reason? Zinc reduced copper absorption and they developed symptoms of copper deficiency, severe anemia, and neurological problems. Fortunately, denture cream makers have removed zinc from most denture adhesives.
You Don’t Know What You’re Getting with Supplements
The FDA regulates dietary supplements such as multivitamins as food products rather than drugs. As a result, manufacturers don’t need approval from the FDA before marketing their products. They also aren’t closely regulated or monitored. However, they must follow certain manufacturing rules and ensure all claims about their product’s benefits are truthful and not misleading. But there’s no guarantee that a supplement you take contains the amount of any nutrient on the label; it could contain more or less of the stated vitamins and minerals. Numerous studies show discrepancies with labeling for supplements.
Multivitamins and Supplements May Provide Nutrients You Don’t Need
Multivitamins may contain vitamins or minerals you don’t need. For example, post-menopausal women and men often don’t need the extra iron in some multivitamins and too much can be harmful. It’s difficult to eliminate the excess iron from your body unless you give blood or have menstrual periods. Excess iron has prooxidant activity that can damage tissues and it can build up in the liver.
Vitamin A is another tricky vitamin that it’s possible to get too much. Some supplements contain higher quantities of vitamin A than is necessary or safe. For example, research shows vitamin A amounts at only two times the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is linked with a higher risk of bone loss and hip fracture. It’s safer to get these nutrients from food sources rather than an isolated supplement.
Despite this, there are situations where taking a vitamin or mineral supplement may be appropriate. Here are some:
- If you can’t eat certain foods due to allergies.
- If you eat a vegan diet (vitamin B12)
- If you take medications that deplete certain nutrients
- If you have health conditions that can be improved by a specific nutrient
- You eat mostly fast food and junk food
- You don’t get enough natural sunlight (vitamin D)
- If your doctor recommends one
- During pregnancy (folate, iron)
- If you’re over the age of 70 and have problems eating a nutrient-rich diet
- If you restrict calories to lose weight
Before taking a supplement, talk to your physician about the pros and cons of doing so. Be aware the supplements can also interfere with some medications and other supplements.
The Bottom Line
Supplements are designed to fill in the gaps and give you more of what you need when your diet falls short. They can help fill any gaps in your diet to ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs.
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