News reports are filled with conflicting studies on the benefits and risks of taking vitamin and mineral supplements. The mixed messages can leave consumers wondering if buying a bottle of vitamins is a worthy health investment or money wasted. There’s good reason for the consumer confusion, says Stacey Zawacki, a Sargent College clinical assistant professor and director of the Sargent Choice Nutrition Center. The answer to “Should I take vitamins?” is never a simple yes or no.
“Everyone is unique,” says Zawacki (SAR’98, SPH’13), who provides private nutrition counseling and teaches the class Food, Supplements, and Consumer Health. Her recommendations depend on an individual’s nutritional needs, health goals, food preferences, and other factors. Does Zawacki take supplements herself? “No, I don’t,” she says. “But that really is irrelevant, because it’s a personal decision based on what I know about my needs, my life stage, and my diet.”
If you’re wondering whether vitamin supplements are right for you, Zawacki recommends a consultation with a registered dietitian. An hour-long counseling session can cost less than what many people spend for a year’s worth of tablets and capsules, and your health insurance may cover counseling costs if you have hypertension, diabetes, or another diet-driven disease.
“What I do as a first step,” Zawacki says, “is ask, ‘What are you currently eating?’” She’ll then analyze your diet, looking for possible deficiencies. If it appears you’re not getting, for example, the amount of vitamin E that the Institute of Medicine recommends for a healthy person of your age and gender, Zawacki won’t automatically send you to the drugstore for vitamin E capsules. Instead, she’ll recommend you add almonds, sunflower seeds, spinach, or other foods rich in vitamin E to your diet. Unlike pills, these foods also provide fiber, protein, and a host of other nutrients. “There’s no pill that contains all that,” Zawacki says.
And some foods contain a remarkable number of vitamins and nutrients. Sweet potatoes, for example, are an excellent source of vitamins A, B, and C, potassium, and fiber. Spinach is included on the list of recommended food sources for iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. Adding just a few of these “super foods” to your regular diet can be an efficient way to fill many common nutrient gaps.
If your lifestyle, food preferences, or allergies make it unlikely that you’ll be able to meet your nutritional needs with food alone, then Zawacki might recommend a vitamin supplement. If she does, she’ll help you determine the best form of that particular vitamin to buy and the best time of day to take it to maximize absorption and avoid interactions with medications.
What if you eat a well-balanced diet, but want to take a multivitamin just in case? “There are scientists out there who disagree on whether it’s going to be helpful, harmful, or have no benefit,” Zawacki says. “I would give you all the information I can, and then it would be your choice.” If you decide to take a multivitamin, she says, choose a reputable brand (look for a seal of approval from ConsumerLab, NSF, or United States Pharmacopeia) that doesn’t include more than 100 percent of the nutrients recommended for your gender and life stage. But keep in mind, she says, “if you’re getting the nutrients you need from your diet, there’s no strong evidence that extra nutrients are going to help you.”
The Sargent Choice Nutrition Center has a list of resources here; alums can also register for nutrition counseling with Sargent’s experts.
A version of this story appeared in the 2012 edition of Impact.