Multivitamins are popular dietary supplements with more than 1/3 of all Americans taking them; sales in the U.S. amounted to about $5.7 billion.
The vitamins that your body needs vary each day and are important to its functioning. You can get them in a variety of ways, and your body absorbs each in different ways.
Here is an easy guide to the most important water soluble and fat soluble vitamins.
Evidence for Taking a Vitamin Supplement
Most doctors recommend a healthy diet to get most essential vitamins and minerals. But you can still have vitamin deficiencies. Most American’s diets don’t meet what doctors recommend for fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Taking a vitamin supplement can help prevent:
- Bone disease
- Neural tube defects
- Problems with memory
- Neurological damage in people over 50 years
Planning a healthy diet isn’t always possible for most people. Some situations make it difficult to choose foods that have the right amounts of the daily vitamins that you need. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies that can cause health problems.
Vitamin supplements can benefit people who have poor nutrition due to the lack of healthy foods from all the food groups. Eating less than 1,600 calories a day when trying to lose weight, having a poor appetite, or trouble eating due to alcohol or drug use may also increase your need for a vitamin supplement.
It’s possible to take too much of certain vitamins, which can cause unwanted side effects and even toxicity. Work with your doctor to choose vitamins recommended for your age, gender, health risk factors, and your stage of life (child-bearing or seniors).
Fat Soluble Vitamins
There are two types of vitamins including fat soluble and water soluble, which affects their functions in your body. Fat-soluble vitamins include A, D, E, and K. The water-soluble vitamins are B complex and C.
You can get deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins when your fat intake is too low or if you can’t absorb it. Some drugs (weight-loss medications) and certain diseases (cystic fibrosis) can cause these problems.
You need small amounts of fat-soluble vitamins, and you can get them through both plant and animal sources. Vitamins A and D are the two most important fat-soluble vitamins.
Vitamin A, also called retinol and beta-carotene, is a fat-soluble vitamin stored in the liver. Girls and African-American kids are more often at-risk of taking in less than 2/3 of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A. Functions of vitamin A in the body include:
- Maintenance of the immune system
- Aid in reproduction
- The function of organs including heart, liver, and lungs
Deficiency of vitamin A is rare in the U.S. but can cause:
- Night blindness and complete blindness
- Increased risk of death from infections (measles)
- Lung and GI diseases in premature babies
The largest amounts of vitamin A are in sweet potatoes, spinach, and beef liver. You can find some dairy products such as milk and cheeses and ready-to-eat cereals fortified with vitamin A.
The recommended amounts of vitamin A in your diet varies by age and gender. Children between ages 9-13 and adult men need higher amounts.
There are few natural foods that have enough vitamin D levels while some foods have it added to them. Another source of vitamin D is through sun exposure.
One of its major functions is boosting the absorption of calcium and phosphorus in the intestine. Vitamin D also maintains the levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood, which is important in healthy bones.
You can get vitamin D deficiency can result from:
- Limited sun exposure
- Kidneys not converting it to its active form
- Milk allergies and lactose intolerance
- Vegetarianism or veganism
The two main diseases resulting from vitamin deficiency are rickets and osteomalacia. Rickets occurs in children and osteomalacia in adults. Both cause skeletal abnormalities and weak bones.
Foods that have greater than 20% of the recommended daily requirements (400 IU) have high amounts of vitamin D. A few of these include:
- Fatty fishes such as salmon or tuna
- Fortified orange juice and dairy products
- Beef liver
Toxicity from too much vitamin D intake can cause high calcium levels in your blood. You might experience nausea, headaches, high blood pressure, and kidney and heart damage.
It’s always important to check with your doctor before beginning to take a supplement.
Water Soluble Vitamins
Water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water and aren’t stored in the body as fat-soluble vitamins are. They include the B complex vitamins and vitamin C.
There are 8 B complex vitamins including:
- B1 (thiamin)
- B2 (riboflavin)
- B3 (niacin)
- B6 (pyridoxine)
- Folate (folic acid)
- B12 (cobalamin)
- Pantothenic acid
Since your body can’t store these vitamins, you must replace them every day. Food preparation such as washing and storing can destroy them. You can protect the levels in your food by refrigerating fresh fruits and veggies and keeping dairy products away from strong light.
B Complex Vitamins
B complex vitamins are important for a variety of functions in your body. Each of the B-complex vitamins has a unique function in your body. Vitamins B1, B2, B3, and biotin affect energy production. Vitamin B6 breaks down amino acids. And vitamin B12 and folic acid promote cell division.
Most multivitamins have the B complex vitamins in them. Food sources include:
- Red meats, pork, and liver
- Leafy green vegetables
- Whole grains
Deficiencies of folate and vitamin B12 are the most common. It’s important to take a folic acid supplement if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding and when taking some drugs (methotrexate).
Your body doesn’t make or store B12 so if you don’t get enough in your diet, you might need a supplement.
We have all heard that vitamin C helps to get rid of colds and infections. But it also has other functions in the body:
- Healing of wounds
- Tooth and bone formation
- The function of the immune system
- Increased use of iron
Vitamin C may decrease the risk of some cancers, heart disease, and cataracts.
The best source of vitamin C is citrus fruits. One orange, a kiwi fruit, 6 ounces of grapefruit juice, or sweet red peppers will give you enough vitamin C that you need for the day.
The Bottom Line
Adequate levels of fat soluble vitamins, as well as water soluble vitamins, are important for your body to function every day. Getting these through a healthy diet is better than using supplements. But, if your diet doesn’t provide your daily requirements, you might need to take a supplement.
It is important to watch the amount of each vitamin you’re taking to avoid both a deficiency or overdose. Each can cause serious medical issues. Most doctors don’t recommend taking mega doses of any vitamin due to the possibility of overdosing.
Before starting a vitamin supplement, see your doctor and discuss the amounts that are safe for you. They will differ for each person because of factors such as age and gender.
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