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Health & Wellness

Vitamin Supplements: To Take or Not to Take

An expert offers some advice

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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.

nutrition, benefits risks vitamins mineral supplements, Boston University BU Sargent College SAR

The answer to “Should I take vitamins?” is never a simple yes or no.

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.

9 Comments

9 Comments on Vitamin Supplements: To Take or Not to Take

  • buba on 12.19.2012 at 5:18 am

    What an awful article… didn’t even come close to answering the question. boooooooo!!

  • Walter on 12.19.2012 at 8:30 am

    This is a great article that reinforces the argument for eating a healthy diet however the photo of the Kiwi vs Pills is very misleading. It ‘suggests’ that one half a kiwi is equal to 30+ pills.

  • Ed V on 12.19.2012 at 12:47 pm

    A good start but it would be nice if there were more details then a few anecdotes. For example, many are on life time therapy for conditions such as hypertension, hypercholestemia, diabetes, etc. What about them?

  • Christine on 12.19.2012 at 1:05 pm

    This article was quite helpful. The message is that in order to determine whether you need to take supplements you should consult a dietitian who will analyze your diet. Then s/he can recommend supplements appropriate for you, also taking into account your age and gender. All in life is not as simple as yes or no.

  • Carrie on 12.19.2012 at 1:36 pm

    I think this an excellent article. It points out yet again that there is no magic pill. Ed V and Buba: the point is that the answer to this question is extremely individualized and the bottom line is to eat food first before resorting to pills. If you are concerned, go see a registered dietitian.

  • Sheppard on 12.19.2012 at 4:08 pm

    Human beings evolved to exist outside for long stretches of time. Today, we’re usually not as exposed to the sun as we once were.

    That’s why most people would do well taking vitamin D tablets every now and then. Gel caplets, not the other kind.

  • Chanda on 12.23.2012 at 4:14 pm

    The fundamentals have been just that- fundamentals- eat well and exercise. The author clearly supports this in her article.

  • BU Grad Student on 02.19.2013 at 2:16 pm

    I wish this was more helpful. Everybody knows that if you get certain food groups, you don’t really need vitamins. But what about those of us who CAN’T eat those things? I have an allergy to citrus fruits, and I’ve wondered if I should take Vitamin C supplements. This didn’t answer my questions. I can’t really just add more oranges or lemons to my diet, they’re not in it for a reason.

  • Naveen on 04.08.2013 at 3:31 am

    Great article, i think this is a question a lot of people are interested in and i’m so glad you wrote about it.

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