You are at your family reunion, and the dinner conversation suddenly turns into Aunt Mabel's infomercial on the value of her latest health craze- "Vitamin Supplements."
One after another, she lists 10 vitamins and swears each has changed her life. "...and vitamin R has taken my wrinkles away and Vitamin L has made my bunions smaller...." You are curious about her claims.
She generously offers to show you her bunions at the kitchen table. You scramble for the exit, but you can't help but wonder. Are all these vitamins really necesary? Is there medical evidence for taking regular vitamin supplements? It turns out, this is a complicated question. Much research has been done regarding many different vitamins.
I will try to summarize the information: The basics: Vitamins are organic compounds that are needed in small amounts for normal human health. They can not be produced by the body, so they need to be eaten in food (or ingested in some form) by all of us. Minerals like calcium and iron are not exactly vitamins, but they are also essential nutrients.
A well-balanced diet in an otherwise healthy person takes care of most vitamin requirements. A well-balanced diet consists of a variety of foods including plant-based (Aunt Mabel needs to remember to get 5-7 servings a day) and dairy products, with occasional lean meat proteins.
However, you may have guessed, there are exceptions to these rules.
Those who might need supplemtation include individuals who have had intestinal absorption problems or weight loss surgery, strict vegetarians and nursing mothers. All these groups have needs in excess of what is being ingested in routine diet alone. These people need a plan from a health care provider.
Another group that deserves special consideration is the pregnant (or planning to become pregnant) woman. Good evidence exists for adequate folic acid to preventing some types of birth defects. A prenatal vitamin is recomended.
Mature women and those living in long-term facilities will benefit from vitamin D supplemetation to prevent falls and maintain bone strength. These same groups may need extra calcium for their bones, but this is less clearly proven.
Of note is the fact that the anti-oxidant vitamin E has not been shown to be of health benefit. Also, Vitamin C has not shown to be helpful to adults. Don't waste your money on these, Aunt Mabel.
While not exactly vitamins, the omega- 3 fish oils are another extremely interesting topic.These may actually be valuable for health, as intake of these substances in the diet (think salmon and tuna) affords some heart and cardivascular benefit. This is worth discussing with your doctor.
So what about the mega supplements from Aunt Mabel?
Her individual medical conditions or medications may be a factor. But, she may not want spend her retirement savings on a multi-year supply. Trust that her bunions will still be there at next years family reunion.
Dr. Joe's Take Home: Some vitamins have value. But first focus on vitamins in their natural state. Eat a sensible diet, with fiber and as many different colored fruits and vegetables as you can. Start healthy with breakfast. And consider asking your health care provider or nutritionist for a more personalized nutritional plan.