Should you take a multivitamin?

20141208_082637One common suggestion from most healthcare providers is for their patients to take a multivitamin and a lot people take one daily thinking it’ll contribute to better overall health. But is it really necessary or are you just wasting your money? Let’s take a closer look at micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals) and possible deficiencies.

A vitamin by definition is an organic compound and nutrient needed by a living organism in specific amounts and a mineral is a solid inorganic substance with an ordered atomic structure that is also needed in specific amounts. Sorry to get all scientific, but it’s a good idea to have a basic understanding of what these actually are. Notice that for both definitions it mentions that you need a specific amount, the reason I emphasize this is because the human body can only absorb so much of any vitamin or mineral. After a certain amount, whatever the body cannot absorb usually gets excreted through urination. So unless you have a deficiency, if you take a multivitamin, you may very well be paying just to have expensive pee.

So how do you know if you have a deficiency or if you really should take a supplement? The first step is to meet with your doctor and get your blood work done, this will show whether your levels are normal, if there are any deficiencies or if you are nearing the low end of where you should be. If you are deficient in anything then you definitely what to supplement, same goes if you are at the low end of the scale. On the other hand, this is also an opportunity to look at your diet; if you are eating a variety of foods and you maintain a balanced diet, there really shouldn’t be any nutritional deficiencies unless you have food allergies or sensitivities or some underlying medical condition. So take a look at what and how you`re eating on a regular basis; are you eating leafy greens? are you eating a fruit each day? are you eating cruciferous vegetables? If you are meeting all of your nutritional requirements on average, then you can probably forgo the pill popping when it comes to micros.

One particular vitamin that has been getting a lot of attention in recent years is Vitamin D and it is for good reason. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and aids in maintaining bone density and preventing osteoporosis, but what’s more is that studies are showing that this vitamin can also impact brain function and some mood disorders. The sunshine vitamin is not available in many food sources, but as its nickname suggests the body can get it from direct exposure to sunlight. These days though most of us are stuck inside all day and when we do head out we slather on the SPF (as well we should) which actually blocks out the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D from the sun. There are a few options including being outside for 15 minutes each day when the sun is shinning without SPF, but that can be a big challenge for anyone living north of Atlanta or in any area with copious amounts of rain. You can also get this vitamin from fortified foods or a supplement, you’re gonna want to aim for 1000 IUs per day unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

I eat a plant-based diet (i.e. vegan) and there is one particular vitamin that I and any other vegan absolutely has to supplement and that’s Vitamin B12. This vitamin plays a key role in brain function and regulating the nervous system and unfortunately it is not found in plant foods; way back when it used to be present in soil, but that ship has pretty much sailed and now with the way our produce is cultivated we really don’t get any from that anymore. So for this vitamin I take a supplement each day, the recommended intake is so small though it’s only 2.4 mcg per day, but it is necessary. I used to get asked all the time: Where do you get your iron from? What about calcium? How about Omega 3s? (it’s not a vitamin it’s actually fatty acid, but it’s still worth mentioning). Although it does get annoying to always be asked these questions, the answers are simple: I meet my nutritional requirements with a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes and whole grains and I have zero deficiencies.

Although I mentioned earlier that for most micros any excess will go out with your pee, be careful here; I once ate too much spinach in one sitting and I did not feel okay, in fact I felt pretty icky. Now it could have been too much iron all at once or too much fiber in one sitting, I can`t be sure but it was not pleasant. So before starting any supplement or multivitamin, be sure to check with your doctor that the amounts are safe for you.

So that`s the gist of it when it comes to vitamins and minerals. If you really do feel more at ease taking a multivitamin to fill in any nutritional gaps then go for it, but don`t spend too much money on fancy stuff if you don`t have to. Focus on including lots of different things from each food group regularly to ensure that you get the most out of your diet. Make your health a priority every single day by working out, eating well and supplementing only as needed.

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