They come in all shapes, sizes and strengths. Vitamin pills and supplements are popular among health conscious consumers who swallow them in hopes of warding off disease and slowing down the aging process. Some people take a single multivitamin every day while others take a handful or more of various vitamins and nutrient supplements. It’s not clear whether taking vitamin supplements has health benefits for people who otherwise eat a healthy diet, but there are certain subgroups of people who may benefit from taking supplement pills. Do you fall into one of these groups?
Do You Eat a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?
If you eat a predominantly vegetable-based diet, especially if you don’t consume milk or egg products, you may be at higher risk for nutritional deficiencies. People who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet are at greater risk for vitamin B12 deficiency – a vitamin that’s important for healthy red blood cells and nerves. Vitamin B12 deficiencies can cause serious nerve damage that may not be repairable, and B12 is found naturally only in meat and dairy products. Taking a vitamin supplement with B12 helps to boost B12 levels. If you eat a vegan diet, you’re also more likely to be low in vitamin D, calcium, iron, and zinc.
Do You Eat a Calorie-Restricted Diet?
If you’re eating a very low calorie diet or eating a diet that limits the kinds of foods you eat, you may be a risk for a vitamin or mineral deficiency. It’s never a good idea to restrict calories to less than 1200 a day. If you do, talk to your doctor about taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement.
Do You Avoid the Sun?
Sunlight is the best natural source of vitamin D. Sunlight converts a vitamin D precursor on the skin to a form the body can process and convert to active vitamin D. If you don’t have adequate exposure to sunlight, you’re likely to be vitamin D deficient and need a vitamin D supplement. Up to 75% of the population has inadequate levels of vitamin D. Before taking a supplement, check your vitamin D level. If it’s low, your doctor will advise you on how much vitamin D supplement you need to take to boost your levels.
Are You Pregnant?
If you’re pregnant, you need supplemental folate and iron. Folate is a B vitamin that’s important for building an unborn baby’s nervous system. Moms-to-be that don’t get enough folate put their baby at risk for neural tube defects, a condition where the spinal column doesn’t close properly. Start supplementing with folate during the planning stages of pregnancy even before conception to reduce the risk of this serious problem. Talk to your doctor about this.
If You Eat Mostly Processed Foods and Fast Food
If you eat a diet of mostly convenience foods, you lack omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy kind of fat that reduces the risk of heart disease. You’re also getting inadequate amounts of fiber, which is important for heart health. Add more fruits, vegetables and fresh fish to your diet, and cut back on processed foods. If you can’t do that, talk to your doctor about taking an omega-3 supplement and supplementing with fiber.
Other Subgroups of People That May Need Vitamin or Mineral Supplements
Smokers sometimes have low levels of vitamin C, while people who drink large amounts of alcohol are at risk for vitamin deficiencies, particularly B vitamins. Older adults often don’t eat an adequate diet or consume enough calories and may need to take a multivitamin. Elderly adults may also have problems absorbing certain vitamins such as vitamin D from the sun and vitamin B12.
Some athletes that train intensely or run long distances may benefit from a multivitamin. Iron deficiency anemia is not uncommon among runners, but it’s important not to take iron supplements unless you need them. Too much iron can cause health problems too. People with eating disorders may need to take vitamin and nutritional supplements as well.
The Bottom Line?
It’s best to get your vitamins and minerals through your diet, but if you fall into one of these groups, you may need a supplement. Talk to your doctor about this.
Net Doctor. “Vitamin Supplements: Good or Bad?”
American Journal of Epidemiology. Volume 147, Number 2, pp. 161-166
Merck Manual. 18th Edition.