Supplement Savvy: Vitamins

Lots of folks take supplements to help keep them healthy, but in many cases, pills aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Do you really need to take vitamins?

Lots of folks take supplements to help keep them healthy, but in many cases, pills and potions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. This new series is your inside guide for some of the most popular vitamins.

Why Supplements Can Be Dangerous

It may seem hard to believe but the supplement industry isn’t regulated by the FDA or any other government agency. It’s only after multiple reports of adverse effects of a product that the government can step in to investigate and attempt to take that product off the market. This means that many supplement companies can (and do) cut corners, skimp on research, and sell products that are of lesser quality. In some cases this can just mean a waste of money, in others it can be dangerous to your health.

There is some good news: many of the most basic vitamin supplements (such as the ones below) tend to be safe when taken properly.  Better yet, there are a few third-party companies that do independent testing and have their seal of approval on product brands that meet standards for quality, safety and efficacy. One such company is the United States Pharmacopeia (USP). Consumers can go online to check recommended brands and look for the USP seal on approved products.

Popular Vitamin Supplements

B-Complex

While they promise to boost energy levels, this combination of various B-vitamins (typically thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folic acid and B12) don’t provide much benefit in supplement form. Many of the B-vitamins are involved in energy metabolism but  can’t do their job unless your intake of calories, fat and carbs are appropriate (popping a pill won’t cut it). Most folks get plenty of these vitamins from food but some may benefit from a little extra. Pregnant women need more folic acid to prevent a particular birth defect. The elderly and those that follow a vegan diet may benefit from extra B-12.

Get more B-vitamin facts – thiamin, riboflavin and niacin

Vitamin D

There’s been a lot of buzz about this fat-soluble vitamin. Since it’s only available in a small number of foods (salmon and fortified dairy products being some of the best sources), deficiencies are common. On the flip side, taking in too much can be toxic. The daily recommendation has been recently increased from 400 to 600 IU per day -- you can get the extra 200 units from an 8-ounce glass of milk and a serving of nonfat yogurt.  If you’re taking a supplement, keep dosages below 4,000 IU a day unless you have had a blood test to diagnose a deficiency.

Learn more about Vitamin D

Vitamin C

Taken for everything from arthritis to the common cold, vitamin C is one of the most common supplements out there. Scientific research has found a small amount of evidence that the vitamin may help reduce the duration of the sniffles, but it can’t prevent them. Vitamin C helps keep skin and connective tissues (like tendons and ligaments) healthy and works as an inflammation-fighting antioxidant. While the only side effect associated with taking too much vitamin C is stomach upset and diarrhea, taking large doses isn’t recommended. A diet with lots of fruits and veggies is the best way to go.

Learn more about Vitamin C

Vitamin A

This vitamin can be extra confusing to consumers because it’s often available in two different forms (and one can be harmful to your health). Vitamin A is important to help maintain vision, skin health, and a strong immune system. Beta-carotene is the antioxidant form of vitamin A and is found in red, orange and dark green fruits and veggies. The other form called retinol is found mostly in animal products like eggs and dairy. Too much of the retinol form can cause liver damage and birth defects so check labels carefully to assess what form is in your vitamin supplements.

Learn more about Vitamin A

Vitamin E

Another vitamin with antioxidant properties, vitamin E was once on every doctor’s recommendation list to boost heart health. While vitamin E does act to protect cells, research has found that average doses (400 IU per day) of this supplement can lead to an increased risk of stroke and other life threatening conditions. Fat-soluble vitamins like E are usually stored by the body and can be toxic. It’s best to stick to food sources where the risks are few.

Learn more about Vitamin E

Bottom Line: You’re always better off getting nutrients from food. If you do choose to take vitamin supplements check reputable sources, avoid mega-doses, and look closely at all the supplements you’re taking to make sure you aren’t taking in too much of any particular nutrient.

Stay Tuned! More in this series to come on minerals, herbs, multivitamins and other popular supplements.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition. See Dana's full bio »

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