Should we take vitamin and mineral supplements, are they a complete waste of money, do they do more harm than good? These are questions millions of people around the world ask, probably because there are so many conflicting studies.

The answer to “Should I take vitamins?” is not a simple yes or no one, says Stacey Zawacki, a Sargent College clinical assistant professor and director of the Sargent Choice Nutrition Center, at Boston University.

Zawacki explains that “everyone is unique”. She says that the health care professional, usually a registered dietitian, needs to find out what the individual’s nutritional needs are, their food preferences, health goals, and other factors.

Over half of all Americans take dietary supplementsthe percentage of Americans who took vitamin and/or mineral supplements grew from 40% in 1994 to 53% in 2006.

When asked whether she takes supplements herself, Zawacki says she does not, but emphasizes that whether or not she takes them really is irrelevant. Taking supplements is a personal decision based on an individual’s knowledge about their needs, their diet and life stage.

People who are wondering whether they should take vitamin and/or mineral supplements should check with a registered dietitian. The hour-long consultation will definitely cost a great deal less than what the majority of people spend on tablets and capsules over a 12-month period.

Patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, and other diseases driven by dietary factors may well have health insurance cover for counseling.

Zawacki says “What I do as a first step, is ask, ‘What are you currently eating?'” This is followed by a close analysis of the client’s diet, and checking where deficiencies may exist. If one is identified, for example, the person’s vitamin E intake is lower than what is recommended by the Institute of Medicine, before recommending vitamin E supplements, she will advise adding spinach, sunflower seeds, almonds and other vitamin-E-rich foods to their diet.

Adding foods with high targeted nutrients rather than supplements also provide the patients with protein, fiber, and other nutrients. There is no tablet or capsule that contains all that, Zawacki explained.

Fruit and Vegetable Market
No tablet contains vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and other essential nutrients

Spinach – rich in iron, potassium, vitamins A, C, E, and K, and magnesium.

Blueberries – these berries are an antioxidant “super food”, rich in phytoflavinoids, vitamin C and potassium. Apart from lowering your risk of cancer and heart disease, they also reduce inflammation.

Sweet potatoes – rich in vitamins A, B6 and C, fiber, potassium, carbohydrates, and carotene (the pink, yellow ones).

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Sweet potatoes are rich in several important nutrients and fiber

Oily fish – rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Examples include salmon, herring, sardines, tuna and mackerel. They help arthritis and lower the risk of heart disease, memory loss and possibly some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Walnuts, flax seeds and fortified eggs are also rich in omega-3s.

Wheat germ – part of wheat that germinates and grows into a plant; the seed’s embryo. Unfortunately, during food processing when cereals are refined, the germ and the bran are often milled out. Wheat germ is high in folate (folic acid), thiamin, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, fatty alcohols, fatty acids, and vitamin E. It is also a great source of fiber.

Avocados – very rich in B vitamins, as well as vitamins E and K. Studies have shown that regular avocado consumption can reduce blood cholesterol levels. Do not avoid avocados because they are high in fat – avocados contain monosaturated (good) fat.

Oats – oats are rich in B vitamins, potassium, folate, fiber, and complex carbohydrates.

If you add some of these “super foods” to your daily diet, there is a good chance your “nutrient gap” will be filled, Zawacki said.

Zawacki will recommend vitamin or mineral supplements if the patient’s lifestyle, food preferences, state of health, or allergies make it improbable that they will meet their nutritional requirements just with diet.

It is the dietitian’s job to help the patient determine the best form of that particular vitamin, what time of day it should be taken to optimize absorption, as well as making sure there is no interaction with any medications the patient might be on.

If somebody has a good, well balanced, nutritious diet, there should be no need for any multivitamin supplements. Several factors should be excluded first, some people need supplements because they might have problems absorbing nutrients, pregnant women need certain supplements, your age may be a factor in some cases, some patients with chronic diseases require supplements.

Women who are at risk of pre-eclampsia should take a dietary supplement containing L-arginine and antioxidant vitamins from their 20th week of pregnancy.

If you exercise a lot, take part in endurance sports, such as marathons, you should see a health care professional and get advise on your dietary and possibly supplement requirements.

Some scientists say supplements will not do you any harm, and may do you some good. Research has been contradictory and confusing for lay people. Swedish researchers found that taking multivitamins regularly, long-term can increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

Zawacki advises:

“If you decide to take a multivitamin, choose a reputable brand (look for a seal of approval from ConsumerLab, NSF, or United States Pharmacopeia) that doesn’t include more than 100% of the nutrients recommended for your gender and life stage. But keep in mind, if you’re getting the nutrients you need from your diet, there’s no strong evidence that extra nutrients are going to help you.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist