Monday, November 1, 2010

Should I take vitamin and mineral supplements?

Health weight loss and balanced nutrition - 

Ideally, the calories a person consumes in a day would equal the calories they used for the day.  This calorie balance would help ensure that a person’s weight would remain in a balanced state.  Unfortunately, many of us struggle with using all the calories we get from our daily food consumption and as a result, we gain weight. One of the challenges in weight loss diet planning is reducing the daily caloric intake to a level below what is needed for daily energy requirements, and still consuming all the necessary nutrients needed for good health. If the nutrient amounts from foods in the weight loss diet fall short “subclinical deficiencies” (Whitney, Rolfes, 2008) in vitamins and minerals may result.  Subclinical deficiencies are those where the symptoms of a deficiency are not at a level that is as easily measured or observable by symptoms as are clinical deficiencies (Whitney, Rolfes, 2008). In either case, vitamin and/or mineral supplements may be appropriate and helpful.

Vitamins and minerals are vital - 

It is important to understand how vital vitamins and minerals are to our health. Vitamins are “organic, essential nutrients required in tiny amounts to perform specific functions that promote growth, reproduction, or the maintenance of health and life,” as defined by Whitney and Rolfes (2008). There are a total of 13 vitamins which are classified by whether they are either water soluble or fat soluble.  Regardless of how they are classified, they all play an essential role in our wellness.  To illustrate just how significant vitamins are one only has to look at the “nearly 1.5 million children worldwide” who are blind because of Vitamin A deficiency (University of California at Davis, 2006). We are fortunate because this type of deficiency on a scale like this is rarely seen in the United States.

Unlike vitamins, minerals are inorganic elements.  They are classified as major (greater than 5 grams) or trace, depending on the quantity of the mineral needed and present in the body (Whitney, Rolfes, 2008).  Minerals are just as vital to our health as vitamins.  This is demonstrated by the condition of osteoporosis, which is a result of a calcium deficiency. Clearly, a healthy diet consisting of a variety of nutrient rich foods that provide all the necessary vitamins and minerals is imperative to our health and wellness. 

Nutritional deficiencies - 

Unfortunately, in America and many first world nations, it is more common to see deficiencies of vitamins and minerals occurring not from a lack of food available to eat, but because the foods many Americans choose to consume do not contain essential nutrients.  Prepared, packaged, convenience and fast foods have replaced fresh foods that contain a variety of vitamins and minerals. Over consumption of these types of fast foods, along with a more sedentary lifestyle, has lead to a the calorie imbalance. Many of the calories found in packaged and fast foods can be described as empty, that is not very nutrient dense. Over time, this type of poor nutrition can lead to the subclinical deficiencies of nutrients, as well as obesity and other diseases. 

Most of us trying to lose weight will turn to a diet plan.  Unfortunately, this plan may come in the form of the latest and greatest fad diet being advertised. Who can resist the quick and absolute results that many of these diets claim? There are a multitude of diet books that contain unbalanced diet plans suggesting dieters eat only certain foods and completely limit or omit others.  When dieters base their weight loss plan on these types of diets they can become dangerously deficient in some of the necessary vitamins and minerals, as well as other nutrients that the body needs for optimum wellness. In addition, restrictive diets are often difficult or impossible to maintain as a long term, healthy lifestyle.  Doctors at the University of Southern California agree and experts at the Mayo Clinic also suggest that when it comes to weight loss or maintenance, “focus should be on developing eating habits you can follow for a lifetime.”

An essential key to success in avoiding vitamin and mineral deficiencies when dieting is to consult an expert.  A nutritionist or registered dietitian can plan a weight reduction diet that meets the recommended daily allowance or adequate intake levels of nutrient rich whole foods that will provide a dieter with those important vitamins and minerals needed for good health.  If a low calorie diet is found lacking in some of these nutrients, then the dietetics professional can also suggest which vitamin and/or mineral supplements are needed and at what amounts they should be taken. Getting a professional recommended dose of a particular supplement will help discourage the over consumption of supplements which can sometimes lead to toxic overdose. If consulting a nutritionist or registered dietitian isn't an option, you can also talk with your doctor, or there are plenty of other good sources of information available. Just make sure they are reputable.  Here are a few online references that may be helpful:,,, The table below also outlines the dietary reference intakes (DRI's) and daily values (DV's) of nutrients. 

table from Jane Higdon PhD, Linus Pauling Institute

Benefits of whole foods -

The case for getting most of the nutrients we need from eating whole foods continues to get stronger. Experts now understand that the nutrients, vitamins and minerals contained in whole foods often work synergisticallyFor example, foods containing Vitamin C also contain something called bioflavonoids. When we eat a food containing Vitamin C we are also eating the bioflavonoids which interact and cooperate with the Vitamin C. This effect found in nature is difficult to replicate with a supplement pill. As a result of our increased understanding of the interactions between the phytochemicals found in our plant foods, experts are suggesting that certain supplements be taken together. This example of synergy highlights why whole foods are preferred over supplements as the best source of vitamins, minerals and nutrients.  Research is continually illuminating the complex interaction of the phytochemicals found in plant foods and their benefits to us when we eat them.  

Yet another point in favor of getting our nutrients from a healthy diet rich in whole foods is the fact that it can be difficult for our bodies to absorb the vitamins and minerals in supplements.  Consider that some vitamins need to be taken with food, while others should be taken on an empty stomach.  There are also vitamins and minerals that should not be taken while eating certain foods or taking specific prescription medications because negative interactions can occur.

Last, but certainly not least, it is important to remember that vitamin and mineral supplements are an unregulated industry.  Supplement manufacturers are not required to prove the safety and effectiveness of what they are selling.  As consumers of these products it’s up to us to become informed and educated about supplements. Of course, there are reputable manufacturers, but buyer beware. The US Food and Drug Administration has a helpful resource to help consumers make informed decisions about supplements found here.

 The bottom line - “all the nutrients we need can come from food, so why not just eat food?” (Whitney, Rolfes, 2008) This isn't to say that supplements aren't without merit. This statement just underscores the importance of choosing healthy, whole foods to decrease the risk of health issues, like overweight/obesity along with nutrient deficiencies, that often result from poor nutrition.  By eating healthy foods that pack a big nutritional punch we can maintain or reduce our weight without the latest and greatest diet craze and expensive supplement pills or drinks.  Nutritional supplements are important, especially in cases where our diet doesn't provide all the vitamins and minerals we need for good health. However, it's important to remember that vitamin and mineral supplements aren't a replacement for eating nutrient rich, healthy foods. Their purpose is simply to supplement where our diet falls short.

We need to eat like our lives depend on it, 
because they do! 
Just a little food for thought.

D’Adamo, P. (2007). Eat right 4 your type. Retrieved November 15, 2007 from
Whitney, E., Rolfes, S. (2008). Understanding nutrition. (11th ed.). California: Thomson Wadsworth.
University of California at Davis. (2006). Disease in third world countries: how biotechnology can help. Retrieved November 15, 2007 from,1,Disease in Third World Countries

1 comment:

  1. Good article, as it points to one of many reasons to become educated about supplements. It's interesting how many supplement companies use synthetic sources of vitamins to reduce cost, yet Whitney and Rolfes described vitamins as "organic, essential nutrients". Organic and synthetic are not the same thing, and your body knows it!