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Fortify Your Knowledge of Vitamins

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Vitamins are essential nutrients that contribute to a healthy life. Although most people get all the vitamins they need from the foods they eat, millions of people worldwide take supplemental vitamins as part of their health regimen.

Why Buy Vitamins?
There are many good reasons to consider taking vitamin supplements, such as over-the-counter multivitamins. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, a doctor may recommend that you take them for certain health problems, if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Vitamin Facts
Your body uses vitamins for a variety of biological processes, including growth, digestion, and nerve function. There are 13 vitamins that the body absolutely needs: vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12, and folate). AAFP cites two categories of vitamins:

  • Water-soluble vitamins are easily absorbed by the body, which doesn’t store large amounts. The kidneys remove those vitamins that are not needed.
  • Fat-soluble vitamins are absorbed into the body with the use of bile acids, which are fluids used to absorb fat. The body stores these for use as needed.

Nutrient supplements are not a substitute for a healthful diet.

Develop a Vitamin Strategy
It is important to have an overall strategy for how you will achieve adequate vitamin intakes. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that nutrient needs be met primarily through consuming foods, with supplementation suggested for certain sensitive populations.

Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling, and Dietary Supplements, says, “The Guidelines emphasize that supplements may be useful when they fill a specific identified nutrient gap that cannot or is not otherwise being met by the individual’s intake of food.” She adds, “An important point made in the guidelines is that nutrient supplements are not a substitute for a healthful diet.”

Special Nutrient Needs
According to the Guidelines, many people consume more calories than they need without taking in recommended amounts of a number of nutrients. The Guidelines warn that there are numerous nutrients – including vitamins – for which low dietary intake may be a cause of concern. These nutrients are as follows:

  • calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamins A (as carotenoids), C, and E (for adults);
  • calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium, and vitamin E (for children and adolescents); and
  • vitamin B-12, iron, folic acid, and vitamins E and D (for specific population groups).

Regarding the use of vitamin supplements, the Dietary Guideline recommendations include the following:

  • Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups. At the same time, choose foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.
  • Meet recommended nutrient intakes within energy needs by adopting a balanced eating pattern, such as one of those recommended in the USDA Food Guide or the National Institute of Health’s Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan.
  • If you’re over age 50, consume vitamin B-12 in its crystalline form, which is found in fortified foods or supplements.
  • If you’re a woman of childbearing age who may become pregnant, eat foods high in heme-iron and/or consume iron-rich plant foods or iron-fortified foods with an iron-absorption enhancer, such as foods high in vitamin C.
  • If you’re a woman of childbearing age who may become pregnant or is in the first trimester of pregnancy, consume adequate synthetic folic acid daily (from fortified foods or supplements) in addition to food forms of folate from a varied diet.
  • If you are an older adult, have dark skin, or are exposed to insufficient ultraviolet band radiation (such as sunlight), consume extra vitamin D from vitamin D-fortified foods and/or supplements.

Practice Safety with Dietary Supplements
When it comes to purchasing dietary supplements, Vasilios Frankos, PhD, director of FDA’s Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, offers this advice: “Be savvy!”

Today’s dietary supplements are not only vitamins and minerals. “They also include other less familiar substances, such as herbals, botanicals, amino acids, and enzymes,” Dr. Frankos says. “Check with your healthcare providers before combining or substituting them with other foods or medicines.” He adds, “Do not self-diagnose any health condition. Work with your healthcare providers to determine how best to achieve optimal health.”

Consider the following tips before buying a dietary supplement:

  • Think twice about chasing the latest headline. Sound health advice is generally based on research over time, not a single study touted by the media. Be wary of results claiming a “quick fix” that departs from scientific research and established dietary guidance.
  • More may not be better. Some products can be harmful when consumed in high amounts, for a long time, or in combination with certain other substances.
  • Learn to spot false claims. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
 

Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, May/June 2009.