Our Comprehensive Guide to Vitamins & Their Benefits
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These days, everyone’s following a different diet of sorts. Maybe you’re the kind of person that eats gluten-free, or perhaps you’re on the paleo or keto train. Whatever your preference is, there’s one thing that’s irrefutable: Getting your vitamins is super important. Vitamins, or organic compounds — commonly referred to as micronutrients — that are necessary (in small quantities, anyway) to sustain life, often come from food. With the exception of vitamin D, micronutrients are not produced in the body and must be derived from the diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That’s the goal, anyway. More often than not, a healthy diet is one that offers a majority of the daily recommended value (DV) of essential vitamins and nutrients via smart picks, such as whole foods, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. This strategy of eating is key to long term health, but isn’t always easy.
“Vitamins and supplements can help bridge many deficits you may be experiencing and contribute to a strong diet and healthy habits,” says Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer emeritus at Cleveland Clinic. While there are some token signs of nutrient deficiency, before you stock up on supplements, it’s advisable to consult with a physician who can help you better understand your individual needs. “For example, if someone knows they are low in vitamin D2/3 or in magnesium, it’s easy enough to add extra vitamin D2/3 or magnesium supplements to their diet to gain optimal levels.”
It’s no wonder why more than 50 percent of adults in the U.S. take supplements, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). (Another recent poll projected that 86 percent of Americans take vitamins or supplements, yet only 21 percent have a nutritional deficiency.)
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In this vitamin buying guide, we’ll outline the benefits of taking vitamins, outline the most popular vitamin supplements, explain the perks of choosing a multivitamin (as well as a couple potential shortcomings), and share some of the top recommended brands by experts.
One word of caution says, Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neuroscience, Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University, you can overdo it on vitamins. “Many vitamins have tolerable upper limits, which means that over a certain dose they may be toxic,” she says. “Plus some vitamins, like vitamin A, only require small doses and the therapeutic and toxic doses are close to each other, so it isn’t advised to use a supplement in this case.”
In other words? Make sure you’re familiar with the recommended doses before loading up your medicine cabinet.
What Are the Benefits of Taking Vitamins?
There’s a reason why parents stress the importance of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables to their children as they grow up: These are important sources of vitamins and minerals. According to the CDC, fewer than 1 in 10 children and adults eat their recommended daily amount of vegetables, which directly impacts the essential vitamins in their regular diet. Low levels of vitamins and minerals can result in everything from mental impairment to low energy levels. Just like regular activity and high-quality sleep, there are plenty of benefits to incorporating vitamins into your regular routine, including:
Boost immune system: Research shows that a number of different vitamins can help to boost your body’s immune system, especially important this year during the coronavirus pandemic. One 2019 review showed that supplementing with vitamin D, for example, can significantly decrease the risk of respiratory infections in people deficient in this vitamin. It also lowered the risk of infection.
Hair and skin health: Certain vitamins and minerals have been shown to impact the radiance of a person’s skin and strengthen hair and nails. Specifically, research backs vitamin E and C for this purpose. One 2016 study showed that women between ages 40 and 70 that used a mixture of vitamin C and zinc (among other antioxidants) had a reduction in spots, redness, improved skin brightness, and less dark circles.
Better energy and focus: There is growing evidence that vitamins and minerals can boost energy, lessening mental fatigue, and boosting cognitive function. This 2020 review published in Nutrients highlights the focus-boosting benefits of vitamin B, C, iron, and magnesium.
Essential Vitamins, Minerals, and Their Benefits
According to the CDC, the essential vitamins include iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, iodine, folate, and zinc.
- Benefit: Magnesium deficiency is associated with elevated inflammation across the entire body, as well as high blood pressure and diabetes. Supplementing with magnesium can help improve muscular contractions, boost energy levels, and even combat depression.
- Important notes: Magnesium dosage should increase with age, with children taking closer to 200 mg per day, young adults age 18-29 should consume 400 mg, and men over 30 should up their intake to 420 mg per day.
- RDA for men age 19+: 420 mg
- Benefit: Iron supports motor skills and cognitive function. Deficiency of iron can cause anemia — or low hemoglobin concentration.
- Important notes: Iron is extra critical for women (especially when pregnant) and children, as well as frequent blood donors and those with cancer, according to the NIH. According to the CDC, anemia affects 43 percent of children younger than 5 years of age and 38 percent of pregnant women globally.
- RDA for men age 19+: 8 mg
- Benefit: Vitamin A is important for normal vision, and also helps the heart, kidneys, lungs, and other organs function correctly, according to the NIH.
- Important notes: A vitamin A deficiency is super rare, as it’s readily available in everything from green leafy vegetables to dairy products, organ meats, and fish including salmon.
- RDA for men age 19+: 900 mcg RAE (micrograms of retinol activity equivalents)
- Benefit: Helps the body to absorb calcium to maintain strong bones. Without it, a person may develop thin, brittle bones. It also helps the muscles move, and the immune system uses vitamin D to fight off infection.
- Important notes: Almost all of the milk supply in the U.S. is fortified with vitamin D, including the plant-based alternatives. Those who avoid the sun — a natural source of vitamin D — should pay extra care to make sure they supplement it within their diet.
- RDA for men age 19+: 15 mcg (600IU); This number increases to 20 (800 OU) after age 71.
- Benefit: The body needs iodine to make thyroid hormones.
- Important notes: Iodine is especially important for women during pregnancy, and those who avoid dairy — a popular source — or are vegetarians (Iodine is found in fish) should pay extra attention to supplementing.
- RDA for men age 19+: 150 mcg
- Benefit: Your body needs folate — a B-vitamin — to make DNA and other genetic material. It’s also critical for cell division.
- Important notes: If you consume large quantities of alcohol, are celiac, or have inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), you may be more likely than others to have trouble getting enough folate, according to the NIH.
- RDA for men age 19+: 400 mcg DF
- Benefit: Zinc is critical for helping people stay healthy by assisting the immune system in fighting off bad bacteria and viruses. It’s also essential to helping wounds heal, and — interestingly enough — important for your senses of taste and smell, according to the NIH.
- Important notes: If you’ve ever had gastrointestinal (weight loss) surgery or deal with Crohn’s disease, both of these can decrease the amount of zinc that the body absorbs. Also, since vegetarians don’t eat meat — a huge source of zinc — you’ll want to eat as much as 50 percent more than the recommended amount.
- RDA for men age 19+: 11 mg
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What to Look for in a Multivitamin and What to Avoid
A simple way to make sure you’re getting in your essential vitamins? Reach for an all-in-one supplement or a multivitamin. According to the CDC, at least one-third of all Americans reach for a multivitamin supplement on the regular, and they also account for almost one-sixth of all dietary supplement purchases. The issue? There is no standard definition of what must go into a multivitamin (i.e. ingredients and what amounts).
“That’s why it’s become fashionable to bash multivitamins lately, as many aren’t all that helpful and some can even be dangerous,” says Jessie Hoffman, PhD, RD, and Assistant Professor at Winthrop University. “Many multivitamins provide random amounts of a variety of micronutrients, including ones we don’t even need to be supplementing (we can get enough of them from the foods we eat).”
It is important to consult with an expert who can help you choose one that is right for you. Based on what your body needs, you can then seek out the right formula.
“You may find, for example, that depending on the brand they may not contain as much Vitamin D or C that you want to take, you may need to add some additional in separately,” says Avena.
By looking into what you’re already consuming and chatting with an expert, you can avoid overdoing it on vitamins and minerals that may already be readily available in your diet. For example, high doses of vitamin A (retinol) over time can harm the liver and other organs through various mechanisms. If you’re already consuming enough vitamin A regularly, for instance, then you may want to lean into one that doesn’t include it.
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