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Supplements PDF Print E-mail

by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
May 2014

Should I take a vitamin or mineral supplement? This is a question that I get asked very frequently as a nutritionist/dietitian. I have to look at each case individually–reviewing each person’s diet, lifestyle, and medical history carefully–because there are many factors to consider before I recommend one or several supplements. Everyone has their own unique body and their own special needs. In this day and age we have a lot of stressors and environmental toxins around us so that makes it different than 50 years ago. Our lifestyles are much faster and fuller than they were 50 years ago too and these all play a role in our nutrient needs. This article is a brief general introduction into the field of nutrient supplementation. It is a completely individual decision and I do not say supplements are for everyone. The world of supplementation is a wide topic and ever changing. It is impossible to cover all aspects but I will give you some basic information to reflect on and then you can pursue the idea and work with a medical/health practitioner/nutritionist to decide if this is the path you want to take.

Vitamin and minerals are essential to life. Vitamins are organic substances that occur naturally in plants and animals and function as co-enzymes in our bodies. Many people associate enzymes with digestion of food but they do much more than that! They act as catalysts for the chemical reactions that are ongoing in our bodies. Vitamins are a crucial part of the enzyme reaction thus ensuring that the body functions normally. The proper functioning of muscles in your arms and legs, breathing, and the transmission of nerve impulses are some examples, and all of these actions involve vitamins. They also have other roles in the body. Some of the vitamins are water soluble so they only stay in the body for short periods of time–just a few days–and are then excreted. Vitamin C and B-vitamins are examples of these. Others vitamins are fat soluble (vitamins A, E, D & K), which stay in the body for longer periods of time and are often stored in fat tissue and even in the liver. Fat-soluble vitamins can cause a toxicity problem if large doses are taken over long periods since they accumulate in the body. Minerals are inorganic substances and are not produced by plants or animals but many of them function in the same way as vitamins. Vitamins and minerals often become a part of the body (I.e., cells, hormones, blood, and bones) for a varying amount of time where they may be used immediately or stored for a period of time.

Choosing a vitamin or mineral is a challenge. The staff in the Wellness department at the Co-op are good resources to help provide you with more information about the vast array of different supplements available at the Co-op. I encourage people to look at supplements that do not contain mega-doses of nutrients since they are often hard on the digestive system. Many food-based supplements that are gentler on the gastrointestinal system. There are differing opinions on the use of multivitamins as opposed to single use of vitamins and or minerals (i.e., B-complex, vitamin C, etc.). Vitamin D, fish oil, and calcium are three of the very “hot” nutrients that are currently promoted and these have to be taken separately from a multivitamin since multi-vitamins can only contain so much of so many nutrients–unless you want to take lots of pills every day. Vitamin B-12 is another common vitamin often recommended since absorption of it decreases with age, and I emphasize that an oral supplement does not automatically ensure absorption as the body ages. If you have a medical problem and are taking medications you should always check with your medical provider or doctor before taking any supplements due to possible interactions that could interfere with the effectiveness of the medication.

Before you decide to take a supplement one of the best ways to insure staying well is to eat a healthy diet with whole foods and many fruits and vegetables. I know that is easier said than done. I believe real food is our best source of nutrients since it is packaged in the ideal form and proper balance for our bodies to absorb it. First and foremost, consume foods as close to their natural state and as close to their place of origin (local, of course) to obtain the highest nutrient density. Over and above that it may be a wise idea to take a supplement, especially if you have any chronic medical condition. Remember that the world of supplements is constantly evolving and there is new research out regularly– almost every day–so the need for some supplements may change. In the meantime, continue to eat as good a diet as possible since relying on supplements is not the way to ensure optimal health. There are also still lots of substances in food that are being discovered that have incredible health benefits. No supplement can substitute for eating well but they can be helpful for many people in addition to a healthy diet.