As a kid, popping a single chewy, sugary multivitamin alongside breakfast was easy. But as an adult, navigating the world of vitamin supplements is more complicated. The sheer number of options available, combined with confusing labels and a lack of nutrition knowledge, can turn the simple task of looking after your health into a seemingly impossible feat.
That's why we chatted with two experts to help clear up the vitamin confusion. Read on to learn what vitamins are, why they're important and what role they play in a healthy diet.
Vitamins vs supplements
It's important to understand the difference between vitamins and vitamin supplements.
Dr Marc Leavey, a primary-care internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, described vitamins as micronutrients, or "chemicals which act to promote or expedite biochemical reactions within the body". The majority of vitamins you need come from the environment and the food you eat, he said. Supplements, on the other hand, are the pills you can purchase at the store that contain specific doses of vitamins and minerals, like Vitamin D, iron, biotin and more.
Amy Gorin, a registered dietician, nutritionist and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area, said vitamins — along with minerals and other nutrients — are essential for good health. For example, Vitamin C can improve your immune health, while potassium (a mineral) can help stabilise your blood pressure, she explained.
The question, then, isn't whether vitamins are important, but how you should best incorporate them into your daily nutrition plan.
Are daily supplements necessary?
Though you should definitely strive to obtain a variety of nutrients every day, including vitamins and minerals, Leavey doesn't recommend "routine ingestion of vitamin supplements" to achieve this goal.
You can get the majority of vitamins and minerals you need by eating a healthy, balanced diet, Gorin added.
"Nutrition needs are very individual, and taking such supplements may certainly benefit your health," she said, especially if you have nutrition deficiencies. "However, this should be determined on an individual basis," she explained.
In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to taking supplements. That said, there are certain steps you can take to improve your nutrient intake and boost your overall health.
How to improve your nutrition
Start by examining your diet. Gorin recommended keeping a food journal for several days to record everything you eat and how much.
"You can use a tracker such as MyFitnessPal to do an evaluation of how much of certain nutrients you're getting, and you can get a feel for if you're low in certain vitamins and minerals, or other nutrients such as omega-3s," she explained. You can then use this information as a guide to determine which foods you should add to your diet to help fill your nutrition gaps.
If, however, you adjust your diet and still want to try supplements, Leavey suggested consulting your primary-care physician to help guide you through the process. Your doctor can run health tests, pinpoint your deficiencies, and ensure you obtain exactly what you need in the right quantity, he said.
If you do opt to take supplements (for vitamins, minerals or other nutrients), below are four types to consider:
Omega-3 supplements containing DHA and EPA can help improve heart and brain health, Gorin said.
"Eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of cooked fatty fish like salmon and herring weekly would provide the amount of these omega-3s that most people need for good health," she explained. But if you're not eating that, she said, a daily supplement of 250 milligrams should do the job.
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is crucial for bone health, Gorin stressed, and can also help prevent hyperparathyroidism, "which is an excess of the parathyroid hormone in the bloodstream that may lead to osteoporosis, joint pain and other issues", she explained.
But since Vitamin D comes primarily from exposure to sunlight and can be difficult to obtain from food, Leavey said, many people are deficient and may require a supplement.
3. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 helps your body perform essential functions, like producing red blood cells and maintaining the central nervous system, Gorin said. "[But] many vegetarians and vegans are low in this vitamin, as many of the good sources are animal-based," she explained. That's where a supplement can prove beneficial.
Iron, a mineral present in red blood cells, helps transport oxygen throughout the body. Leavey said iron deficiency, which can cause fatigue and dizziness, is common among menstruating women, but that an iron supplement (in addition to an iron-rich diet) can help combat that deficiency.
Finally, it's important to keep in mind that supplements aren't always well-regulated, so be careful when you're shopping.
"You want to make sure that you're buying a quality product, one that contains what its label says it does and that doesn't contain any contaminants," Gorin said. Her advice? "Shop for one that's undergone third-party testing or review, such as one with a USP Verified mark."