In an ever-growing health-conscious world, more and more people are wondering where they should be getting their nutrients from—supplements or vitamins. As it turns out, the fresh whole foods you eat largely contribute to the necessary nutrients your body needs. These include calcium, magnesium, vitamins A, B, C, and more.
Unfortunately, many Americans still eat a nutrient-poor diet. Their diets include processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars that contribute to inflammation and chronic disease. Older adults, especially, are not getting the right amount of nutrients from their meals. But even a well-balanced diet can fall short.
So are vitamins a good substitute that people can use to meet this nutritional challenge? Let’s explore.
Are Supplements a Good Substitute?
According to Dr. Howard Sesso, an epidemiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “As we get older, our ability to absorb nutrients from food decreases. Also, our energy needs aren't the same, and we tend to eat less.”
So if there is a nutrient decrease as we age along with a decrease in absorption, can supplements make up for it? As Dr. Sesso would go on to explain, it’s a bit more complicated than that and really boils down to individual needs.
If you know you’re nutrient deficient or think you aren’t getting enough vitamins or minerals, supplements can be helpful. However, taking too much can actually harm you. Dr. Clifford Lo, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, noted, “Extra vitamin A supplements can lead to dangerous, toxic levels if taken too frequently.”
So are there benefits to taking multivitamins? The evidence is mixed. In one of the largest studies ever conducted on multivitamin use, Physicians’ Health Study II, Dr. Sesso’s team of researchers found that multivitamins were associated with a small reduction in cancer and cataract risk in men but did not show evidence of reducing fatalities from heart disease.
The Journal of Nutrition published a study back in March 2015 showing multivitamins with minerals lowered the risk of death from heart disease in women but not men.
Another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in May 2019 found that adequate intake of certain nutrients was associated with a reduced risk of death by any cause.
When to Choose Vitamins or Whole Foods?
Before jumping right into supplements, Dr. Sesso and Dr. Lo both agree that you should try to improve your diet first. Nutrients are abundant in various fresh foods. Dr. Lo noted, "They [food] are accompanied by many nonessential but beneficial nutrients, such as hundreds of carotenoids, flavonoids, minerals, and antioxidants that aren't in most supplements."
Food with Important Nutrients
- Vitamin B: Lean beef, turkey, tuna, sunflower seeds, spinach, and other leafy greens, eggs
- Vitamin D: Salmon, tuna, lean beef, vitamin D-fortified milk and yogurt, fortified orange juice, egg yolk
- Iron: Liver, oysters, lean beef, chickpeas, beans, lentils, and sesame seeds
- Magnesium: Spinach, kale, and other leafy green vegetables; unrefined grains; and legumes
- Calcium: Dairy products, fish such as salmon and sardines, and dark, leafy greens
Why You Should Consider Multivitamins or Vitamin/Mineral Supplements
Dr. Sesso advises consulting a dietitian to get a better understanding of any nutrients your diet lacks. If dietary changes don’t work or you are unable to make them, the doctors agree—supplements can be helpful.
Here are some scenarios in which you should consider multivitamins and supplements.
- If your diet limits or restricts food groups that make certain vitamins and minerals hard to consume in whole-food forms.
- You have a poor appetite and cannot consume enough of the foods—and nutrients—you need.
- Those who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant or are older adults.
Choosing the Right Multivitamin Based on Your Needs
Just like you may do with food, you should always check the multivitamin labels for ingredients, vitamins, nutrients, total servings, and more. While taking any kind of multivitamin or mineral supplement, ensure you’re taking the appropriate amount. This study showed evidence that vitamin supplementation can help those with nutrient deficiencies but is not so helpful for the optimally nourished.
If you’re curious about what your diet may be lacking, start track of it daily. And, of course, consult a doctor for better insight into vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Find Multivitamins at Nutrition Faktory
Take this piece of advice from Dr. Sesso, “Choose a well-known brand that's been around for a long time and is likely to have been carefully tested.”
Nutrition Faktory works with some of the industry's top brands. We have an extensive list of great multivitamins and other supplements. Check some of these out, or find what you’re looking for at Ntritionfaktory.com.