Stroll through any given drugstore and you’re likely to find vitamins and supplements galore.
There are tablets, fruit-flavored gummies, liquid drops and even powders that you can blend into your morning smoothie. The range of purported health benefits is even broader, running the gamut from improved memory to better heart health to an increased libido (seriously).
It’s no surprise, then, that more than half of Americans take a vitamin or supplement of some kind. As a whole, the global dietary supplements industry is worth an estimated $133 billion. Yes, that’s billion with a B.
With so many people taking vitamins, you figure those little capsules are doing something good for you, right?
Over-the-counter vitamins, minerals and nutritional supplements don’t provide much — if any — additional health benefits if you’re already eating a well-balanced diet, says Anne Linge, R.D.N., C.D., C.D.E., a dietitian and diabetes educator at University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt. And if you’re not, adjusting what you eat should be your first course of action rather than taking a multivitamin.
“None of us was born with a supplement bottle in hand,” she notes.
Food is the best resource
Vitamins themselves are essential to our bodies and contribute to growth, digestion, nerve function and a whole host of other things.
The important distinction, Linge says, is how you’re getting those vitamins.
“Our diet should be what’s supplying all of the nutrients that our body needs,” she explains. “That being said, we need to be eating a variety of foods. There is no one major miracle food that supplies absolutely everything.”
Take apples and oranges. A serving of Washington’s signature fruit supplies nearly a quarter of your daily fiber but not much by way of vitamin C. An orange, on the other hand, provides a fair amount of fiber and almost your entire amount of daily vitamin C.
Different types of fruits give us different benefits. In that same vein, seafood offers health perks that fruit doesn’t have, vegetables are unique from grains and so forth. By incorporating variety into a well-rounded diet, you’re able to get the nutrients you need — no vitamin-infused gummy necessary.
The only exception is vitamin D, Linge says. We can’t get enough of the “sunshine vitamin” from the food we eat, and our bodies rely on sun exposure to make enough of it.
Why most multivitamins don’t work
After reading all that, you might be wondering why you can’t just take a multivitamin and call it a day.
While multis do contain practically every nutrient on the planet in a convenient little pill, that doesn’t mean they’re as effective as eating a diverse diet.
“Multivitamins can have nutrients like calcium and iron in them that don’t absorb well together,” Linge says. “It all takes you back to thinking about food as your best resource.”
Along with pairing ingredients that don’t play well together, vitamin manufacturers are guilty of luring in buyers with misleading claims.
Supplement companies often market their vitamins as being nutritionally complete, but if you really take a look at the labels, many times they’re not even close.
“That’s a big problem with the gummies.” Linge says. “They’re missing a lot of nutrients and they don’t tend to be as complete, even if they are nice and chewable and flavorful.”
And, no, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t review dietary supplements for their safety or effectiveness, nor does it approve claims about these supplements’ purported health benefits.
On the opposite end, certain supplements might say they provide 400 percent of your daily vitamin C, leading you to think you’re getting four times the nutritional boost each day. But that’s simply not the case.
“Your body hits tissue saturation at some point,” Linge says. “After that, you’re just feeding the salmon out in the sound.”
When taking a vitamin can help
Despite all this, there are certain situations when bending the no-supplements rule makes sense if you simply can’t get all the nutrients you need from your diet alone.
If you live north of Memphis
While you’re ideally soaking up a few minutes of midday sun throughout the year to make enough vitamin D, that’s simply not possible during winter here in Seattle or anywhere else above 35 degrees latitude, basically north of Memphis.
The problem isn’t just overcast skies — it’s that the sun isn’t able to get high enough during winter months for its UVB rays to penetrate the atmosphere.
“If your shadow is longer than you are tall, you aren’t making vitamin D, even if you go out and sunbathe on a sunny January day,” Linge explains.
There are also folks that need to avoid sun exposure for medical reasons, as well as people who spend most of the day inside and aren’t able to get their daily sun allotment.
In these situations, Linge says taking a vitamin D supplement year-round can help ensure you’re staying topped up on the sunshine vitamin. Talk with your doctor to see how much you should take.
If you’re a newborn baby
Newborn babies should get a vitamin K injection shortly after birth. This prevents something called vitamin K deficiency bleeding, a form of uncontrolled bleeding in the brain or intestines.
Placenta transfer of vitamin K from mama to baby in utero is poor, and babies aren’t able to get enough from breastmilk alone.
If you’re a pregnant woman
It’s not just newborn babies that require a little vitamin boost. Expecting moms need more folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and other nutrients than other women do to aid the healthy development of their little one.
For that reason, many doctors recommend that pregnant women take a prenatal vitamin.
If you’re taking certain medications
Some prescribed medications can affect your ability to absorb or produce certain nutrients. For example, a popular diabetes drug is known to cause a vitamin B12 deficiency.
In situations like this, Linge says, it’s important to understand the side effects of your medications and to ask your doctor if taking a supplement can help.
If you’re vegan or have dietary restrictions
“If you’re eating a few specific foods and not getting a variety or if you’re eliminating a whole group of foods, then yes, you might need a supplement,” Linge says.
Vegans, for example, might be deficient in vitamin B12 because it occurs mostly in animal products like fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Although there are plenty of vegan-friendly foods fortified with B12, taking a supplement is another option.
All that said, even if you have dietary restrictions causing you to avoid certain types of foods, it’s still best to chat with your doctor or a dietitian to find natural, food-based ways to stay healthy.
“We can help you find different ways to get the variety you need,” Linge says. “Sure, people can take a multivitamin if they want, but it may not be something that you need.”