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To Supplement or Not: Nutrition, Other Factors Influence Need for Vitamins

Last updated: January 25, 2024

Remember, vitamins and supplements may support a healthy diet, but not replace it.

Dr. Courtney McClintic, Family Medicine Physician, ThedaCare Physicians-Green Lake

The new year often comes with resolutions to eat healthier, including the addition of vitamins and supplements to improve overall health. But are vitamins and supplements worth the extra money? It depends on your individual health needs.

“It’s best to get needed vitamins and minerals through your diet, but that’s not always possible,” says Dr. Courtney McClintic, a Family Medicine Physician with ThedaCare Physicians-Green Lake. “While many doctors recommend people take a multivitamin to fill in any nutrition gaps, some individuals do need more.”

Common Vitamins and Supplements

People often benefit from taking a vitamin D supplement, especially those of us living in areas with limited sunlight in the winter. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. This leads to stronger bones, helps your nerves move messages between your brain and body, and strengthens your immune system.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in four Americans have low vitamin D blood levels. Your primary care provider can determine whether you need to have your levels tested and if you’d benefit from a supplement.

“Few foods naturally contain vitamin D, so you need to look at fatty fish, such as salmon. Fortified foods including milk, some breakfast cereals, and orange juice also contain the vitamin,” Dr. McClintic says.  “In addition, your skin absorbs vitamin D from the sunlight, which is why we need it more as a supplement during the winter.”

Vitamin C and zinc are popular supplements that some people take during cold and flu season. Taking vitamin C won’t prevent colds, and it’s unlikely to reduce the duration or severity of symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic. The science behind zinc for colds is equally mixed, and taking it can cause side effects.

Most people receive enough vitamin C and zinc through their diet and do not need to take a supplement, Dr. McClintic says. You can get vitamin C through many fruits and vegetables. Foods such as beef, pork, seafood, legumes, nuts, and oatmeal are good sources of zinc.

Diet and Age Considerations

People following special diets, including vegetarians and vegans, often need supplements to ensure they get all the nutrients they need. Bodies need vitamin B12 to maintain a healthy nervous system and blood, but natural sources for it are limited in vegetarian and vegan diets.

“Most people receive their vitamin B12 from animal sources, such as meat, fish, and dairy. Those are foods that vegans do not consume, so they need their B12 from an alternative source,” Dr. McClintic says. “Vegetarians must include dairy and fish in their diet to get the B12 they need, so they may also need to take B12 supplements.”

In addition, vegetarians and vegans may need calcium and zinc supplements, depending on their diet. Discuss your diet with your primary care provider, and they can help you determine if you need supplements.

For people over 50, calcium becomes essential since it strengthens bones and teeth. The mineral is naturally found in milk and some other dairy products, as well as dark-green leafy vegetables, soybeans, canned sardines, and some forms of tofu.

According to the National Institute on Aging, older people, who are at greater risk for bone loss, may need a calcium supplement. Your primary care provider can help you determine if you need to add extra calcium to your diet.

Making the Right Choice

After discussing vitamin and supplement use with your primary care provider, the next step is choosing the right one. The U.S. vitamin and supplement market is worth more than $57 billion, with many products making unfounded claims.

“Vitamins and supplements can be costly, so it’s good to make sure you’re only taking what you need,” Dr. McClintic says. “If you receive enough of a vitamin through regular food sources, your body will expel what’s not needed, and it’s money down the drain.”

In addition, some vitamins and supplements can have side effects and may interact with other medications you’re taking. Make sure to alert your primary care provider about anything you’re taking.

While the Food & Drug Administration does not regulate supplements, the USP Dietary Supplement Verification Program provides independent oversight about a supplement’s content and ensures that it meets science-based quality standards. Looking for USP-verified brands can help in the selection process.

When reading the packaging, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can always ask a pharmacist or reach out to your health care team with questions.

When using a supplement, it’s important to follow the directions on the bottle. Taking more than what is recommended does not provide additional benefit. Taking too much over a long period can lead to side effects, such as digestive issues if you take too much vitamin C.

“Remember, vitamins and supplements may support a healthy diet, but not replace it,” Dr. McClintic says. “Your primary care provider can advise you on what you may need and what’s not necessary.”

Discuss vitamin needs at your annual wellness visit.

Tags: supplements Veganism Vegetarianism Vitamin C Vitamin D Vitamin Needs by Age Vitamins Zinc

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