In the world of healthy living, there are sometimes confusing, and even contradictory beliefs. And one we often come across is in regards to vitamins and supplements. Should I take them? Should I not? Is a multi-vitamin the most beneficial? We’re breaking down all of the questions you ask with answers from one of our favorite registered dietitians, McKenzie Hall.
Get Healthy U: “I eat pretty healthy on a regular basis, including fresh fruits and veggies in my diet. Do I really need to be taking supplements outside of that?”
McKenzie Hall: First and foremost, I like to emphasize that supplements are intended to do just that–supplement one’s diet, not try to make up for a poor diet. An evidence-based position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published in the December 2013 journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, suggested that while dietary supplements can help some people meet their nutrition needs, “consumption of a wide variety of nutritious foods is the best way to maintain health and prevent chronic disease.”
Some populations – such as woman who are or may become pregnant, individuals with nutritional deficiencies, or those that adhere to a vegan diet may benefit from taking a supplement to help them meet nutrient needs.
GHU: “It seems like fish oil has been in the spotlight recently. What are the benefits and should I be taking it? What if I eat fish 1-2 times a week?”
MH: Omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat found in fish oil, have been shown to reduce inflammation and lower blood lipid levels and blood pressure. Most medical experts recommend individuals get between 250 to 500 mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) per day, first from fatty fish and then from supplements. Consuming about 8 ounces of fatty fish per week provides an average intake of 250 mg of EPA and DHA per day.
While walnuts, chia seeds, and ground flax are all good plant-based sources of omega-3s and have alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which merits nutritional benefits, the body converts alpha-linolenic acid into EPA and DHA at rather low levels. For individuals, who eat little or no fish or follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may want to consult with your healthcare provider or registered dietitian about how to best meet your needs.
GHU: “I’m feeling a cold coming on. Should I pump Vitamin C or eat an orange?”
MH: Studies have found that vitamin C can help to shorten the duration of a cold and also acts as a wonderful immune booster – especially for high performing athletes. Many plant foods are excellent sources of vitamin C naturally, like oranges, raspberries, broccoli, kiwi, and bell peppers. Also, try not to under-estimate the power of taking time to rest!
GHU: “Alright, getting real… as women, we can really struggle with that certain time of month. Is there a supplement I should be taking for heavy periods and/or mood swings?”
MH: Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States and women with heavy periods may be at risk for developing iron deficiency. Natural animal sources of iron include poultry, meat, and fish. Veggie sources – while not as well absorbed – include beans, dark leafy greens, and fortified cereal. Combining vitamin C-rich foods with your iron sources can help to improve iron absorption. I would start with food first, and if you’re still considering an iron supplement, I would talk with your health care provider or registered dietitian.
Additionally, studies have shown that PMS sufferers who supplement with magnesium have notably less weight gain and bloating during their time of the month. Magnesium has also been observed as effective in helping those mood swings!
GHU: “I live in Minnesota. Do I need to be taking Vitamin D in the winter?”
MH: Vitamin D can be a challenge for a lot of us! In fact, the majority of Americans are falling short in getting sufficient Vitamin D in their dietary intake to meet current recommendations. And since current research shows that vitamin D has been linked to protection from cancer and other chronic diseases, it may be something to consider. You can also boost your intake of vitamin D with milk or vitamin-D fortified orange juice, soymilk and cereals, eggs, and fish including salmon and tuna.
GHU: “I’ve heard that magnesium can make a difference for people who frequently get headaches. What’s the deal with that?”
MH: Magnesium is linked to more than 300 biochemical reactions, including widening of the blood vessels that otherwise constrict blood flow to the brain – therefore, it’s been linked to headache relief.
GHU: “Are there any vitamins I can take to manage my stress or anxiety?”
MH: Believe or not, research shows the type of bacteria in our gut can actually impact our mood, meaning having more of the good or beneficial bacteria in our gut can actually calm us down and made us less anxious. Our gut, often referred to as our ‘second brain’ is a multi-tasker for our health, including regulating digestion and metabolism, extracting and making vitamins from food, boosting our immune system, and protecting our body from harmful bacteria and other pathogens. The gut also produces 95 percent of our serotonin, the ‘feel good’ hormone that helps to regulate our mood and keep us feeling sunny. To increase the good bacteria in your gut, eat fermented foods rich in probiotics, like plain cultured yogurt, miso, fermented soy sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, and tempeh. You can also take a probiotic supplement.
GHU: “I’m not looking to take all sorts of different supplements. Is a multi-vitamin sufficient?”
MH: Recent recommendations by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force “conclude that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of the use of multivitamins for the prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer.” So, it all goes back to my best advice of putting foods first (I’m starting to sound a bit like a broken record!), and supplements second. If you’d like to use a multivitamin to help fill in nutrient gaps, choose one that does not exceed the recommended daily values.
GHU: “Are all supplements created equal? Are there certain brands that are better than others? How do I intelligently read a vitamin label?”
MH: To best ensure that you’re buying supplements that meet safety standards, look for those that have undergone a third-party safety verification, such as with NSF or USP. This certifies that the product has voluntarily undergone tests of quality and has met certain standards for identity, strength or potency, and purity.
Also consider that if you’re eating a well balanced diet and meeting the recommended amount of a nutrient, you may not get any further health benefits from taking a supplement. In some cases, combining supplements with your usual dietary intake, which may include fortified foods may actually cause you to exceed safe levels of nutrient intake.
While supplements can help fill in nutrient gaps, it’s best to consult with your health care provider prior to taking supplements, especially of you are pregnant, nursing, or have a medical condition such as hypertension. Some supplements can interfere with medications.