Jessica Bippen, MS, RD, explains the importance of vitamins to support optimal health. Plus: understanding different types of supplements and the top reasons for taking them.
Think you don’t need vitamins? You may need to reconsider. Keep reading to find out why supplements can help ensure you’re getting all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.
Why Vitamins Are Important
Vitamins and minerals are necessary for your well-being. Your body needs a certain amount of each of the essential nutrients to function optimally.
Ideally, you’ll get these nutrients through the food you eat. Yet unfortunately, most Americans aren’t eating in a way that provides the proper amount of these nutrients daily.
In addition, there are many factors that pose difficulty for many individuals to meet their needs—even within healthy, well-rounded diets.
That said, don’t dismiss healthy eating habits. Your main focus should be getting most of the vitamins and minerals you need through food, while using supplements to provide additional nutrients that may be lacking.
Types of Supplements
There are many different types of supplements, including:
- traditional vitamins and minerals, such as “letter” vitamins
- other specific nutrients found in foods, such as omega-3s
- antioxidant compounds like phytonutrients and amino acids
- non-food compounds found in the body, such as melatonin
- herbs and adaptogens, such as ashwagandha
Of all the supplements, the most common types are vitamin and mineral supplements. That’s largely because vitamins and minerals are considered essential micronutrients the body needs in order to function properly.
Do I Need Supplements?
Since your diet may lack important micronutrients, the purpose of taking supplements is to better support your health. They can help meet your daily recommendations or provide a more concentrated amount of nutrients than you’re able to get through food alone.
The following list is far from conclusive. However, it includes some of the most common reasons why you need vitamins and can benefit from taking supplements:
- Increased need and reduced absorption of certain nutrients with age
- Lifestyle factors that contribute to nutrient depletion or increased need, such as pregnancy, sunscreen/limited sun exposure, smoking, etc.
- Environmental factors, such as nutrient depletion in the soil
- Unhealthy eating habits (aka the Sad American Diet) that lack a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables
- Eating a restrictive diet, such as vegan or vegetarian
- Removing certain foods or food groups due to food allergies and/or intolerances
- Medical conditions, such as celiac disease or colitis, in which the body may not be able to absorb nutrients properly
- Having an active eating disorder that restricts food intake for weight loss or body-image concerns
- Taking certain medications that impair absorption or deplete your body of nutrients
Let’s take a closer look at five main reasons why you may need to supplement.
5 Reasons to Take Supplements
1. You Have Dietary Restrictions
It’s important to be mindful of nutrients that your diet may lack once you cut out certain food groups.
Whether you’re following a diet like vegan, paleo, or keto—or otherwise have to cut out certain foods groups like gluten or dairy due to allergies or intolerances—you’re at a higher risk of not getting specific nutrients.
For instance, vegans and vegetarians need to be particularly mindful about getting quality sources of B12, iron, zinc, and iodine.
Similarly, paleo and dairy-free diets may need extra calcium and vitamin D, since dairy products make it easier to meet the daily requirement of these nutrients.
Additionally, grains are an excellent source of B vitamins, zinc, and magnesium.
2. You Want a Vitamin “Insurance Policy”
Depending on your particular eating style, you may consider supplementing with specific nutrients. Otherwise, an easier solution is to take a high-quality multivitamin that covers the essential daily nutrients.
However, remember that a multivitamin doesn’t replace nutritious foods. Instead, it can help fill in the gaps.
3. You’re in a Mature Age Group
Individuals over the age of 50 have increased needs for calcium, vitamin D, and B12.
Vitamin D and calcium are especially important for post-menopausal women since they’re at increased risk for loss of bone density due to hormonal changes. A daily calcium/D3 supplement can help minimize this risk.
In addition, older adults sometimes have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food, which can also lead to a deficiency. For that reason, taking a daily B12 supplement is advised.
4. Your Food Lacks Nutrients Due to Soil Depletion
No matter which diet you follow, the food you eat isn’t as nutrient-dense as it once was.
Over the years, conventional farming has led to over-farmed land in the name of profit. Without proper crop rotation, the soil starts to lose nutrients, resulting in nutrient depletion in our food supply.
Research shows that nutrients affected by soil depletion include protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C. Other nutrients plants absorb from the soil that may also be affected include magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6, and vitamin E.
Unfortunately, this large-scale problem requires intentional change among farmers. Still, don’t let it deter you from eating your fruits and vegetables.
5. YOU’RE PREGNANT OR Lactating
Nutritional needs for several nutrients increase during pregnancy and lactation. These times are critical for (future and new) moms to ensure they meet the daily requirements, as these nutrients are essential for the baby’s proper growth and development.
With that in mind, the importance of prenatal vitamins—and postnatal, for that matter—cannot be understated. The most important vitamins for expecting and new mothers include folic acid, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin D, and DHA.
Most women of childbearing age should consider a multivitamin with additional folic acid or folate supplement. Taking a prenatal vitamin that contains folate or folic acid while pregnant or lactating can help meet the increased needs.
Supplements don’t replace the importance of a well-balanced diet that includes fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats. That said, you need essential daily nutrients to maintain good health, and supplements can surely help.
If this all seems overwhelming, don’t panic! A registered dietitian can help determine if you fall under one of these categories and make personalized recommendations for you.
However, it’s always best to review nutrient concerns with your doctor, especially if you’re on other medications. While supplements are beneficial, more isn’t always better!