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Do You Really Need Those Giant Vitamin Pills? Read This And Find Out.

Photo credit: Bradley Stemke.

With the grey weather persisting outside, it’s easy to worry about not getting enough Vitamin D — and not processing calcium and magnesium effectively, as a result. But are vitamin supplements really the answer? Walking down the vitamin aisle at your local grocery or health food store can be confusing and daunting. Here’s the skinny on what, if anything, you should pick up.

First, it’s important to understand that the best way for the human body to absorb essential nutrients is through food. Our bodies evolved to take what they need from food, not from pills. So, eating a balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and plant fats is the best way to take in vitamins and minerals.

Second, understand that men and women have different nutritional needs. Menstruating and pregnant women require more iron to keep their red blood cell count high and to avoid problems like anemia. If you check the labels on women’s multivitamins and on generic or men’s multis, you’ll notice higher amounts of iron. These amounts are unsafe to give to children, or girls who are not yet menstruating. Do not share your vitamins with your children. Pregnant women, or women who wish to become pregnant, also require additional folic acid to help prevent birth defects. 800mcg a day is the optimal amount.

Third, remember to take your vitamins with food, even if it’s just a shake. When you ingest food, your stomach engages acids and bile that help digest it effectively. These same fluids are what digest your vitamins. Especially if you’re breaking down a big pill, having some food to start the process can really help you take as much as you can from each dose, and get your money’s worth. If you find pills difficult to take, or if they nauseate you, you might also consider taking a liquid multivitamin that can be mixed into water, juice, or a smoothie.

Also, be wary of herbal supplements that are not vitamins or minerals. A 2010 report by the US Government Accountability Office found several examples of “deceptive or questionable marketing practises,” especially when related to claims of treating specific physical ailments. Further, Consumer Reports found a “dirty dozen” herbal supplements that are linked to serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and other organs. And even the supplements Consumer Reports lists as worthy of consideration, like calcium and fish oil, should be the subject of a conversation with your doctor in case they interact detrimentally with your existing medications.

If you’re really curious, take a look at this database from Information is Beautiful that collates scholarly data from PubMed and other scientific journals about supplements. Or you can take a gander at the lovely infographic it inspired.

So, what should you take?