At some point or another, the idea that vitamins are a necessary part of every day was likely ingrained in you by a parent or a doctor, but recent studies have called the effectiveness of common supplements into question. A 2018 study found that the most common vitamins—multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin C—did not provide any consistent health benefits or harms.
If you've been diligently popping your multivitamin each and every day this information might make you wonder: What vitamins should I take, really? In order to get to the bottom of this question, we tapped Tiffany Lester, MD, of Parsley Health. Lester still believes that most everyone can benefit from incorporating vitamin and mineral supplements into their routine; however, it's a matter of discussing your lifestyle, eating habits, and personal conditions with a doctor to understand which vitamins you really need to take. Ahead, she answers everything you need to know about vitamins.
Is it possible to get all your vitamins from diet alone?
"While ideally, we would be able to get all of our vitamins and nutrients from food, this is difficult for the majority of the population," Lester explains. No matter how healthy and balanced most try to eat, the vitamin content in the foods you choose can be out of your control. "Most of us are eating food that has been shipped to our grocery stores from thousands of miles away and grown in nutrient-depleted soil," she says. That's why making smart choices at the grocery store isn't always enough to get you the vitamins and minerals you need.
Even doing your part to shop locally and seasonally from the farmer's market might not be enough to cut it. As Lester explains, common digestive health issues like irritable bowel syndrome can impair your body's ability to absorb all of the nutrients found in your food. Knowing this, you may want to consider taking certain vitamin and mineral supplements.
When is it necessary to take vitamins?
"Almost everyone could benefit from supplements no matter how pristine their diet," Lester says. This is especially true for those with specific conditions or dietary restrictions. For example, those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet may want to consider taking certain supplements to make up for possible gaps in their food intake. These might include vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, and zinc. Additionally, pregnant women often also need specific nutrients to support the metabolic process, according to Lester. Many suggest pregnant women take prenatal vitamins containing vitamin C, folate, calcium, vitamin E, vitamin B12, zinc, and more.
However, even if you aren't pregnant and don't have any specific dietary restrictions, Lester suggests discussing supplements with your doctor in order to learn which might be worth taking for you. "Most individuals benefit from specific nutrients found in vitamins yet have no idea what to actually take," she says. That's why it's helpful to discuss with a health professional who can determine what vitamins you should take. They can perform a micronutrient test on you to find out if you need certain supplements.
What popular vitamin and mineral supplements are worth taking?
While Lester recommends speaking to a doctor about your own specific needs, here are a few common vitamins and minerals worth taking (and some that aren't), according to scientific research.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D isn't found in many common foods, and Lester identifies it as one of the most common deficiencies she sees when testing patients. While it can be produced naturally by spending time in the sun, many struggle to get sufficient amounts of this vitamin. It helps bones absorb calcium, which keeps them strong and has been shown to help people live longer. For those who don't spend much time outside, it's definitely worth taking.
Zinc: This mineral has been shown to benefit the immune system, specifically when it comes to the common cold. Some studies have found that it can significantly reduce the length of a cold and the severity of symptoms.
Vitamin B3: Also known as niacin, this vitamin promotes healthy skin, digestion, and nerves. While some studies show that it can help cancer patients and stroke victims, it's also been found to be ineffective at reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. However, Lester indicates that taking birth control for an extended period of time can deplete the body of B vitamins, causing fatigue. In this case, it could be beneficial to try a supplement.
Folic Acid: Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps the body make new cells. It's commonly suggested as a supplement for women who are pregnant, as their bodies need more of the nutrient, and it's been shown to decrease the risk of certain birth defects when taken during pregnancy.
Vitamin C: Although some swear by vitamin C to boost immunity, studies have found that it doesn't have a consistent effect in preventing colds or helping people recover from them quickly.
Multivitamins: Besides identifying that there isn't solid evidence of multivitamins reducing the risk of heart disease or stroke, another study actually found that postmenopausal women who took multivitamins over the course of 18 years had a higher overall risk of death than those who didn't take any supplements. Lester agrees that most don't need a multivitamin, as it's best to focus on the body's specific needs.
While the topic is still widely up for debate, if you think you may be deficient in a vitamin or mineral, or you simply want to make sure you're doing all that you can to stay healthy, ask your doctor about what vitamins you should take. And if you already take supplements, it's important to keep in mind that they'll never replace a healthy diet and lifestyle when it comes to your long-term health.
Shop everything you need to keep up with your health goals below.
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National Institutes of Health (Office of Dietary Supplements). Zinc: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. July 15, 2020
National Institutes of Health (Office of Dietary Supplements) Niacin: Fact Sheet for Consumers. July 11, 2019
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