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Permanent link for On the Fence about Supplements? on April 21, 2022

The world of supplements can be a confusing and vast landscape. Nutritional or Dietary supplements are defined by the FDA as “products taken by mouth that contain a "dietary ingredient." This could be vitamins, minerals, protein, and many more substances intended to supplement the nutrients you get from the food you eat. It can be hard to determine if supplements are necessary, what supplements you should take, and if supplements even work. 

It is important to meet all of your vitamin and mineral needs but it can be hard to know if supplements are the best way to do that or if there are other options. Many studies now indicate that most dietary supplements are ineffective or can cause more harm than good, yet numerous companies advertise the many positive effects of their products. Eating a balanced diet full of nutrient rich foods is actually better than supplements because whole foods are more nutrient-dense, are a source of fiber, contain health protective substances, and are usually cheaper than supplements. Here’s a general guide on the most commonly used supplements and some tips on how to get a nutrient rich diet without supplements.

Vitamins and Minerals 101

There are two types of vitamins: water-soluble and fat-soluble

Water-soluble - These vitamins dissolve in water are easy to absorb into the body, but are not stored in the body's tissues. This makes it very important to get enough of these vitamins in your diet each day. Any water-soluble vitamins the body doesn't absorb go down the drain - literally - when you use the bathroom.

Fat-soluble - These vitamins dissolve in fat and the body stores them in fat tissue and can draw from those stores as needed. This means if you get too much of these vitamins they will stay in your body and can have negative health effects. The fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, E, and K. When supplementing these vitamins it's important to not exceed the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (shortened to UL). This limit is the largest amount of a vitamin you can take without experiencing negative health effects. It is very unlikely to reach this limit from food alone.

Now that we know the different kinds of vitamins we are going to go through some of the most commonly used supplements by young adults. We will cover why each vitamin is important, how you can get more in your diet through food, and some risks of taking it as a supplement.

Multivitamins 

Many people take multivitamins, but aren’t sure exactly why they are taking them other than “vitamins are good for you.” There is actually no definitive evidence that multivitamins improve health or prevent illness. The main issue with multivitamins is that many foods we eat regularly have been fortified, meaning they have had vital nutrients and vitamins added so that we get our recommended daily amount. When you combine a multivitamin with our already fortified diets, you can quickly end up with an excess of vitamins and nutrients in your body, which can be dangerous. Another fact to keep in mind is that most of the benefits that multivitamins claim to have aren’t backed by science and are simply a product of marketing. If you do still want to take a multivitamin and you can always take half or take a children's multivitamin so you are not getting too much of any one vitamin or mineral. (But you should check with a nutrition professional before doing so). A balanced diet is the best way to get all of the vitamins and minerals you need. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and is crucial for calcium absorption in the intestines. Vitamin D helps maintain bone health, as it is key for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus. It is a very common vitamin supplement, likely because 70% of adults in the United States are deficient in vitamin D. To learn more about some factors that contribute to this, check out Stella's blog post about sunlight and its effect on mood. Vitamin D in the right dose can safely help with deficiencies, just make sure you speak with a healthcare professional to determine if you are deficient before you start taking any supplements. Vitamin D is not found in many foods in substantial amounts, fatty fish like salmon and tuna are good sources. There are also lots of foods that are fortified and are good sources of vitamin d and other vitamins, this is often dairy products and their plant-based alternatives

Antioxidants ( vitamin A and vitamin E )

Both Vitamin A and E are fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamin A is important for eye health, white blood cell production, maintaining the health of endothelial and bone cells, and it regulates cell growth and division. Vitamin E helps with immune system function and helps prevent arterial clots

Antioxidants have been marketed as protection from cancer and illness, but there is no substantial data to support this. The data we have shows that these vitamins can become toxic and increase the risk of long-term illnesses in some cases. Because of the dangers of high doses of these supplements, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional before taking them. It’s also important to know that taking antioxidant supplements for the prevention of illness isn’t backed by data or science. Some good food sources of vitamin A are leafy greens, orange and yellow vegetables, tomatoes, red bell peppers, milk, eggs,cantaloupe, and mango. Some good food sources of vitamin E are plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, pumpkin, red bell pepper, asparagus, and avocado.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, so its important to get enough each day. Vitamin C plays a role in healing infections and wounds, it aids in the production of collagen, and plays a role in neurological function. Many people incorrectly believe that vitamin C can prevent or cure a cold. There isn’t much science to back this up. Vitamin C is considered safe in moderate doses, just don’t expect it to ward off cold and flu season germs. Some food sources of vitamin C are citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli/cauliflower, and potatoes.

Vitamin B 12

Vitamin B is a water-soluble vitamin, so it is also important to get enough everyday. Vitamin B12 is a very common supplement for people who follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet because it is mostly found in meat and dairy products. However, unless directed by a professional to take it as a supplement, you can obtain your daily value through fortified grain products like cereals, oatmeal, and both dairy and non-dairy varieties of milk. Outside of a plant-based diet, vitamin B12 deficiency is rare.

Protein and similar supplements

Eating enough protein in your diet is important because protein is vital for the maintenance and growth of muscle. May people take protein powder supplements to help them reach their fitness goals, but just like all the vitamins we discussed food is often a better bet than a supplement. Whole foods are often cheaper than protein supplements and contain other important nutrients you need. Its important to get as much of your protein from plant based sources as you can, as plant based foods are lower in saturated fat and better for overall health. Some good sources are legumes like beans and lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprouts, and artichokes. If you want to include meat into your diet you should try and limit your red meat and processed meat intake. Poultry, seafood, and dairy in moderation are good options.

So what now? 

The biggest takeaway from this should be that vitamins and supplements should be treated like any other medicine. You should always consult a doctor before taking them. If you don’t have a deficiency or a specialized diet, there is often no need for them. Eating a variety of food is cheaper and healthier than taking a supplement. Another big takeaway is that you do need vitamins and minerals for your body to function properly, but humans have survived for so long without commercial man-made supplements. If there is a particular vitamin you think you need more of, do some research to find what foods are naturally high in that vitamin and incorporate more of them into your diet. Many people wonder if they should be taking a vitamin or supplement, but for most of us we can get our vitamins better from the food we use to fuel our body .

If you want to learn more about getting vitamins and minerals from food check out this resource from the Harvard School of Public Health or you can talk to GVSU's Campus Dining Dietitian, Alison Cooney.

By: Eva VanWyck, WIT Peer Educator

Part of our WIT Blog Series

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Page last modified April 21, 2022