Vitamins 101 for Women

A healthy, balanced diet, reduces the need for vitamins and supplements. Find out which ones you might still need.

By Nora Isaacs

To supplement or not to supplement? For many years, the advice about whether to add supplements to your diet seemed to change. But today’s wisdom is abundantly clear: eating a balanced diet is the best way to pack in the nutrients you need for a healthy body and mind. Science backs this up. “There have been multiple studies that show you can get most vitamins and minerals you need from a general healthy diet,” says nutrition manager Lisa Dierks, MFCS, RDN, LD, wellness dietitian at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.

There is one huge caveat, however—many of us don’t stick to a regular, healthy diet. We grab an energy bar for breakfast as we run out the door. We skip lunch. We may have a vegetable with dinner—but that tangle of greens by itself isn’t enough to meet your vitamin needs.

In addition, sufficient vitamin and mineral intake differs for each person depending on a variety of factors, including gender, age, dietary restrictions, income level, and general health. The key is truly understanding your specific nutritional needs.

Follow the guidelines
According to Dierks, a healthy diet is one based on a well-thought-out program, such as the US Dietary Guidelines. Broadly, these recommended guidelines are based on several core principles, such as following a healthy eating pattern across a lifetime; focusing on variety, nutrient density, and amount of food; maintaining a healthy body weight; limiting calories from added sugars and saturated fats; and reducing sodium intake. Specifically, these guidelines include daily consumption of a variety of different-colored vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and healthy protein and oils.

Experts say that this basic diet should safeguard you from vitamin and mineral deficiencies. But it’s not so cut-and-dried. Even if you substitute fresh eggs for an energy bar breakfast, and try your best to eat a healthy diet based on these recommendations, this isn’t a guarantee that you are taking in enough of the vitamins and minerals essential for a healthy body and mind. That’s because a generic healthy diet like the US Dietary Guidelines doesn’t take into account an individual’s specific health issues or stage of life.

One size does not fit all
“The reasons why women can’t always get all of their nutrition from food are complex,” says Daphne Miller, family physician and associate clinical professor, University of California, San Francisco. “It could have to do with many factors, including health problems such as GI and kidney disorders, limited financial resources affecting access to whole, healthy food, and finally, environmental degradation,” she says. “It is important to note that much of our food is grown in depleted soil and is therefore lacking in nutrients.”

Another reason is life stage: postmenopausal women might need to add extra calcium and vitamin D for bone health, and pregnant women or women of childbearing age greatly benefit from extra folic acid and iron. Food allergies, lifestyle choices, simply not eating enough calories, or a medical condition that makes it difficult to absorb vitamins and minerals well are other reasons an individual might not get the ideal amount of nutrients they need from food.
When a person falls into such categories, supplementing is highly recommended. The recommendations are very specific for different deficiencies. For example, pregnant women should take a prenatal vitamin that includes iron or a separate iron supplement; adults age 50 or older should eat foods fortified with vitamin B-12 or take a separate B-12 supplement; and adults age 65 and older who do not live in assisted living or nursing homes should take 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily to strengthen bones and reduce the risk of injuries from falls.

Proceed with caution
Remember, the aim is to focus on a healthy diet and then supplement with vitamins, rather than continue eating an unhealthy diet and make up the difference with supplements. Whole foods contain micronutrients, as well as fiber and substances called phytochemicals that protect against diseases, all of which aren’t found in supplements.

For people who are concerned about getting enough vitamins in their diet, Dierks recommends taking advantage of nutrition trackers like MyFitnessPal or Lose It!, which track specific nutritional data when you input your food intake.

Not sure if you should supplement? See a doctor or nutritionist, who can recommend blood tests based on symptoms such as fatigue. Experts stress that it’s important to take supplements with caution; certain ones could be toxic when consumed in the wrong dose. They point out that too much iron can become toxic, for example, since it’s one of the few minerals that the body cannot eliminate, except through blood loss. High doses of vitamins A, E, and B-6 can also accumulate in the body and cause symptoms that range from moderate to serious. In the case of vitamin A, too much can cause problems including irritability and hemorrhage.

If you determine that you need an extra boost with supplements, see the adjacent chart for the top vitamins recommended. Not everyone should take all the vitamins listed; your need should be determined by your health-care provider. And, of course, ask about possible side effects and interactions with any medications you take. DW

Nora Isaacs is a freelance health writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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