Vitamins…Pills or Platefuls? (Hint: Both…and then some!)

A relative recently told me that she had asked her family pediatrician about vitamin supplements for her teenager, who was a picky eater. The doctor’s response was “at that age, kids should be getting their vitamins from the grocery store, and not from a bottle.” Meaning, the natural vitamins and minerals provided by certain foods should be the primary source of such nutrients, as opposed to those manufactured, packaged, and found at your local pharmacy. Honestly, this is good advice for any age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to get enough vitamins is to eat a balanced diet with a variety of foods, including lots of whole grains, fruits, veggies, and lean proteins. However, as we all know, that’s often easier said than done. Ideally, if you’re eating a healthy and well-balanced diet, you shouldn’t have much of a need for supplements—whether they come in pill form, or in “enriched” energy drinks. The key word here, though, is “ideally.” In an ideal world, we wouldn’t succumb to stress-eating, late-night snacking, or making poor nutritional purchases when we shop while hungry. (I’m not speaking from experience here, or anything…OK, maybe a little.) Seriously, though…we may hear a lot about “ideal weight,” “ideal portion size,” or any number of other “ideals” that we know we should be following, but it doesn’t mean that all of us are actually doing so.

Perhaps this is a contributing factor to some of the statistics we see coming from reports issued by the CDC indicating that, while the American population generally maintains healthy body levels of vitamins A and D and folate*, there are still some groups that suffer from deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals. Age, gender, and race/ethnicity often play a part in these deficiency rates. Sometimes, even if you’re strictly adhering to the USDA MyPlate guidelines, simple biology or genealogy might have its way with your health, whether you like it or not. Therefore, it is important to do whatever you can to take control of your health, particularly if your doctor has checked your levels and identified specific nutritional deficits. Taking vitamins is an excellent step in the right direction towards rectifying such weaknesses.

As a major element of good nutrition habits, vitamins play a significant role in maintaining your overall health, and may even help reduce your risk of developing certain chronic illnesses. Vitamin D–deficiency, for example, has been associated with higher prevalence of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, according to a study conducted at the University of Kansas. Vitamin D is essential to our bodies’ ability to absorb calcium, making it just as important as the latter for bone health, as well. Luckily, not only is this crucial vitamin available in supplements as well as foods such as eggs, seafood, mushrooms, and some fortified dairy products and cereals, but our body can actually produce its own vitamin D when exposed to the sun. Ten to fifteen minutes of sunlight daily is usually enough to get that process going, but don’t forget the sunscreen!

While we’re on the topic of protecting our skin, Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s department of dermatology has found vitamins C and E—otherwise known as antioxidants—to be especially effective for skincare purposes. (Vitamin C is not just for staving off colds!) Not only do antioxidants (including vitamin A) help safeguard our skin against sun damage and skin cancer, they also prevent further dermatological harm by facilitating our skin’s self-reparative processes. With other sources indicating that vitamins A, C, and E may even aid in reversing some external signs of aging, foods such as broccoli and tomatoes (vitamins A, C) and many nut and seed varieties (vitamin E) may be the perfect natural complements to all those creams in your medicine cabinet.

The family of B vitamins are also beneficial for skin health (even topically), but they pack an even more powerful punch than just warding off dry, itchy skin. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid* are vital to cell and DNA production, as well as to metabolism and brain function. This becomes especially important when a woman is pregnant, being that all of those processes are in action while producing a whole new human being! Folic acid, specifically, is critical for proper fetal development and the prevention of birth defects. For this reason, obstetricians will usually prescribe prenatal vitamins to soon-to-be-moms, to make sure they’re getting the right dose of folic acid (and DHA, another primary component of the biological development of many human organs). Some women like to take prenatal vitamins even when they’re not pregnant, as they enjoy some of their common secondary effects: more robust hair and nail growth. (Just ask Heidi Klum!)

As always, before taking any new nutritional supplements, check with your doctor to make sure you’re not inadvertently overdosing on any particular vitamin, since the side-effects of such a mistake can severely outweigh the health benefits of taking them in the first place. If you have any preexisting medical condition, are pregnant, or are already taking any other supplements, prescriptions, or herbs, it is even more imperative to ensure that there is no danger of contraindication.

*Just to clear up a common misconception: Folate is not the same thing as folic acid. Though they are both B vitamins, the former occurs naturally in foods such as leafy greens, legumes, fortified grain products, and organ meats, while the latter is a synthetic form of the vitamin that is administered via supplements such as prenatal vitamins.