When food falls short in essential nutrients or you’re allergic to milk, bananas or oranges and can’t hit your daily calcium, potassium or vitamin C levels, a vitamin regimen can help pick up the nutritional slack. Although you can now customize vitamin regimens, are these daily doses necessary? Find out whether there’s proof in the pills or they’re just another placebo of wellness.
Not a complete replacement
People often use vitamin regimens if they have a nutritional deficiency, such as anemia, or a disease that nutrient supplementation helps manage, such as osteoporosis. Others take vitamin regimens in an attempt to “feel better” or “fix” a poor-quality diet, says Lauri Wright, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a professor at the University of North Florida and University of South Florida.
“For the average person, all of their vitamin and mineral needs can be met by diet, and dietitians recommend relying on food first for meeting recommended vitamin and mineral intakes,” Wright says. “Foods contain more than just one nutrient, so when you eat vitamin C- packed fruits, you are also getting potassium and fiber. Not everyone, though, eats a nutritionally complete diet. Some of the most common vitamins and minerals lacking in Americans’ diets include vitamin A, vitamin D, potassium and calcium.”
For those who may not eat the healthiest diet or have certain food restrictions, that’s where a vitamin regimen can come to the rescue, says Colleen Webb, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.
“Vegans usually require a vitamin B12 supplement because plants are not great sources of vitamin B12,” Webb says. “No supplement regimen is going to take the place of a healthy diet. There’s this misconception that if you take vitamins then you can eat junk food. However, vitamin supplements should complement a nutritious diet and fill in the missing gaps where needed. They are not a replacement for a healthy diet.”
Do your homework
Before deciding whether to start a vitamin regimen and which ones to take, consider their effectiveness and cost.
“The biggest drawback to a vitamin regimen is that there is a risk of toxicity,” says registered dietitian Tina Fuchs, president of First Line Nutrition in Port Washington, New York. “Most vitamin toxicities are caused by supplement use, not food sources. The Food and Drug Administration does not monitor quality, potency, purity or efficacy of supplements, and cases of contamination have occurred. Consumers should look for supplements with the United States Pharmacopeia label to ensure proper laboratory manufacturing standards.”
Some vitamin supplements might not be effective because research doesn’t support the use or because different forms of a nutrient are less effective. Cost is also a drawback. “When it comes to vitamins and other supplements, you don’t want to spend money on what you don’t need,” Fuchs says.
Certain regimens might also damage certain organs. “For example, fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and E can cause liver damage in large quantities,” Wright says.
Plus, a lot of vitamin supplements have inactive ingredients that are common allergens and others may cause gastrointestinal upset, according to Webb. “People with celiac disease have to be extra careful to choose supplements without gluten,” she says.
Be sure to discuss your vitamin needs with a health professional, and having an annual physical is a good starting point. “Ask about toxicity and effectiveness,” Fuchs says. “Do your due diligence.”