Stop The Supplements: What Vitamins & Minerals Really Do For Our Bodies and Where We Find Them in Food
It amazes me how many clients reach out or come to me and proceed to tell me all about their “clean” eating habits. They tell me how they only eat wholesome, organic foods and never eat fast food. Then their next question is “What vitamins can you recommend?” to help with weight management. Or they hand me a list of vitamins and supplements they take that someone sold them or told them they should take. As the last part of my National Nutrition Month series, I’m dropping some knowledge about vitamins and minerals and what they ACTUALLY do for us (HINT! It has NOTHING to do with giving you more energy).
WHAT VITAMINS REALLY DO
Vitamins are an essential part of a healthy, functioning body. They do not provide any calories for energy. In other words, vitamins don’t give us energy. What vitamins do is serve as an important assistant with many processes in our bodies (like creating energy) and keep us feeling and working at our highest potential. Vitamins are different than minerals because they contain the element carbon, whereas minerals are individual elements that don’t contain carbon. The most common vitamins are A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins like B12, and B6. Vitamin A helps with eye health, C assists with collagen in your skin and immunity; vitamin E makes up an antioxidant, and vitamin K helps blood clotting.
In colder regions, many people lack Vitamin D. In the winter months our count tends to be lower because vitamin D is created by the body when exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is essential for bone health, so it should also be included in a balanced diet throughout the year to keep your bones strong. You can obtain vitamin D in your diet by including foods like fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel), cheese, egg yolks, and some fortified products like milk and other dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals. Read those food labels to see if they are fortified with vitamin D.
Another common vitamin deficiency, especially in vegans, is B12. This vitamin is an essential part of metabolism and assists with energy production processes. Remember – vitamins themselves don’t provide energy. And unlike vitamin D, B12 can’t be created by the body, so it must be consumed through food sources. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products such as dairy products, eggs, fish, meat, and poultry, which is why vegans are especially susceptible to deficiency. In addition, as people get older, the body begins to lose its ability to absorb B12 from foods. Vegans can obtain vitamin B12 from fortified foods (like grains) or through supplementation.
Folate is an important nutrient for women who are, or are planning to become, pregnant. We get folate from spinach, black eyed peas, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and enriched grains or cereals. Folate deficiency during pregnancy can cause neural tube defects in the fetus, which is a condition of the lower back and spine. People with both folate and B12 deficiencies together are risk of anemia as well.
WHAT MINERALS REALLY DO
Minerals are also essential nutrients for the body. They are individual elements that do not contain carbon and do not provide energy in the form of calories. They are simply used to assist with function and structure throughout the body.
Along with vitamin D, calcium is a common mineral that is frequently lacking in diets. When most people think of calcium, the first thing that comes to mind is dairy products. However, calcium is also found in a lot of plants such as spinach, okra, kale, collards, and soybeans. Without enough calcium and vitamin D, especially within women, bone density can decrease, leading to osteoporosis, or other conditions of bone weakness.
Iron is an essential part of our red blood cells and contributes to our ability to transport oxygen throughout the body. It is commonly found in meat, fish, and poultry, as well as broccoli, kale, beans, lentils, peas, dried fruits, nuts, and fortified grains. Iron deficiency can cause anemia. To increase the amount of iron absorbed from plant-based foods, add a source of vitamin C, like citrus juices or red bell pepper to the dish.
Potassium and Magnesium
Potassium and magnesium are both electrolytes in the body. They promote fluid balance, help conduct electrical nerve signals throughout the body, assist with muscle function, and help regulate blood pressure. Most people think of bananas when it comes to potassium-rich foods. However, avocados, potatoes, prunes, and lima beans contain more potassium than bananas! Magnesium can be found in whole grains, nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens, and beans.
SUPPLEMENTS VS FOOD
Vitamins and minerals are available in abundance through our food supply and can be obtained through a balanced diet. Vitamin and mineral supplements should be a last resort when it comes to obtaining vitamins and minerals and should be determined on an individual basis. For example, if someone has a health condition that prevents the consumption of certain foods, a supplement may be necessary. In addition, vegans may need B12 supplementation. Pregnant women usually take folic acid (folate) supplements to prevent neural tube defects. However, not everyone needs to be taking a supplement.
In many cases, supplements can potentially cause harm. Most supplements provide extremely high doses of a nutrient. Sometimes too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing, and there are toxicities that can occur with vitamins and minerals in excess. Some vitamins are stored in fat (fat-soluble), which means unless you are eating a fat source, you may not absorb that nutrient. Water-soluble vitamins can be lost through your pee if the body does not need all of it. So if your multivitamin is claiming that you’ll meet 500% of your vitamin C needs, the bad news is that you’re peeing out 400% of it (plus some of the money you spent on that vitamin).
Another key point I always address in my talks is that the supplement industry is not very regulated. There is a high potential for contamination of supplements or instances where the supplement is not 100% pure. You want supplement advice to come from a credited healthcare professional, like a doctor or dietitian, and not your personal trainer, friend, or the teenager working at GNC. And if you’re already eating a well-balanced diet, then you don’t need any additional pills or powders make up for deficiencies. Especially since consuming a well-rounded diet can provide all the nutrients you need.
Those who follow extreme dietary habits, or cut major food groups from their diet, are at a greater risk of deficiencies. This is why time and again you hear me calling out these extreme diets in the media. There are an abundance of vitamins and minerals in our foods, but they vary in sources, from all food groups. Cutting out an entire food group puts you at risk for missing out on the nutrients that can’t be obtained from other sources except a supplement. Before looking for supplements to fulfill your needs, take a close look at your food choices, and try to address that first. Supplements can be helpful in certain situations, but should not be a “Band-Aid” for your deficiencies. And they most certainly don’t help with weight loss or boosting your energy.
This post was co-authored by Kristen Matthews, a senior dietetics student at Montclair State University. Kristen is a Student Liaison for the the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is student representative for the NJ Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and is on the Executive Board of Montclair State Dietetics Organization.
DO YOU TAKE A VITAMIN OR MINERAL SUPPLEMENT?
ARE YOU EATING WELL BALANCED MEALS?
DO YOU CUT OUT ANY MAJOR FOOD GROUPS?
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