Are vitamin & mineral supplements necessary for good health?
Many people take a variety of different vitamins and minerals in an attempt to optimize their health and make sure they are getting all of the nutrients they might be missing by skipping meals or eating out in fast food restaurants. But is this really the best way to get our essential micronutrients? Does nutritional supplementation above and beyond our requirements really have any benefit? Or could if possibly be doing us harm? Read on to find out.
EAT REAL FOOD
It is so important to get the bulk of your nutrients from your food and unfortunately there is just no magic pill. By eating a balanced diet full of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy (or milk alternatives), lean protein and healthy fats you can get all of the nutrients you need plus the extra benefits coming from eating whole, minimally processed foods without the need for additional vitamin or mineral supplements.
There is so much more to food than simply vitamins and minerals, and the interaction between all of the components within a food (and between multiple different foods) is not something you can get from a pill. There is a complex combination of different phytochemicals within foods that have overlapping roles in the body and it is important to eat a variety of these foods in combination in order to reap these benefits.
WHAT ABOUT ANTIOXIDANTS?
Antioxidants have received a lot of attention in the media for their importance in prevention of chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer by decreasing the amount of oxidative damage that happens in the body. These antioxidants include vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, carotenoids, flavonoids and selenium and are mainly found in vegetables and fruits and other plant foods.
Although the scientific basis for taking antioxidant supplements makes sense, research has failed to show that taking high doses of an antioxidant in pill form has any benefit, and in many cases can actually cause harm (source). For example taking high doses of beta-carotene in pill form has actually been found to increase cancer and angina risk in people who smoke or have been exposed to asbestos. However, taking beta-carotene and other carotenoids in food form (found naturally in foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin) has been found to promote health (source). Also, high doses of vitamin E supplements can cause harm in individuals who already have heart disease, cancer or diabetes. So overall…just eat real food!
THE LOW-DOWN ON SUPPLEMENTS
Not all supplements are bad and there are certain supplements that we do recommend for certain populations:
1. North Americans: should consider taking a vitamin D supplement of 1000 international units (IU). The reason why is because while our bodies are able to make vitamin D when exposed to the sun, living in northern climates the sun rays are not strong enough most of the year. Vitamin D is also not naturally found in many foods except for egg yolks, fatty fish and is added to all cow’s milk in Canada.
2. Women of childbearing age: should take a supplement that contains at least 400 micrograms (0.4mg) of folic acid. This is crucial in the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida that can occur in the early stages of pregnancy before many women will realize they are pregnant.
3. Pregnant women: need additional iron and folic acid and should take a prenatal vitamin that contains additional amounts of these.
4. Men and women over the age of 50: may require vitamin B12 supplementation as their body may not be able to absorb vitamin B12 naturally occurring in foods as well. They should check with their doctor and get bloodwork done to test their levels of vitamin B12.
5. People (especially women) who do not drink milk or eat dairy products: Should consider a calcium supplement of 500mg. However do not take larger amounts of calcium as this can be harmful for your heart.
6. Vegans: A well-planned vegan diet can meet most nutrient requirements however there are certain vitamins and minerals that are not found as easily in a vegan diet and it is important to be aware that you are getting enough vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and omega 3 fatty acids.
7. People who are at risk for heart disease or do not eat fatty fish: should consider an omega 3 supplement of 1000-2000mg of omega 3 (not containing omega 6). These fatty acids are so important for heart, brain and lung health.
8. People who smoke: should take a vitamin C supplement of at least 35mg per day as smoking or exposure to second hand smoke decreases vitamin C levels.
Get the nutrients you need by eating a variety of whole, minimally processed foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy (or milk alternatives), lean protein and healthy fats. It’s as simple (or hard) as that. There is nothing wrong with taking a supplement or two if required (see above) and a multivitamin can act as a good safety net to ensure you are getting all of your essential nutrients. Just remember there are certain vitamins and minerals that can cause more harm than good and…EAT REAL FOOD!
Want to learn more about protecting your own health or the health of your loved ones? Contact us.