“Take your vitamins!” your parents may have chided you growing up.
But they could have been misinformed. “If you have a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, you do not need supplements,” says Dr. Sarwat Jabeen, MD, family physician, geriatrician and bone-care specialist at Memorial Hermann Medical Group Physicians at Sugar Creek.
“Older people who cannot cook or who are food insecure may need supplements. But food always is the best option,” says Dr. Jabeen.
Whatever category you fall into, we’ve got the scoop.
Alert your doctor to any vitamins you take. “Vitamins can interact with prescription drugs and be harmful,” Dr. Jabeen says. “You may think taking them isn’t relevant, but it’s very important for your physician to know everything you’re taking.”
Vitamin supplements can affect medicines for diabetes, hypertension, cancer and immune disorders, among others, she says.
And when you take vitamins, take them with food, she says.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not oversee vitamin supplements, so not all ingredients may be listed. “Pills often have preservatives that may interact with drugs,” Dr. Jabeen says.
Symptoms, such as numbness of your feet or hands or weak limbs, may be due to taking too much of certain supplements.
Purpose: Vitamin D strengthens bones.
Potential side effects: While vitamin D helps bone strength, too much contributes to osteoporosis, or porous bones. An excess also can stunt children’s growth. In addition, it can impair kidney function and cause dry mouth, kidney stones, decreased libido and vaginal discharge. It may make cholesterol-lowering statins less effective.
Food sources: Vitamin D is easy to get, and since it is fat-soluble, it’s best absorbed with snacks or meals. Trout, salmon, tuna and other fatty fish are rich in vitamin D. Almost all milk is fortified with 3 mcg (120 IU) per cup. Most plant-based options, such as soy, almond and oat milks, also are fortified. So are many breakfast cereals, orange juice, yogurt and margarine. Cheese and ice cream are not. 15-30 minutes of sunlight daily also meets your needs.
Purpose: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that aids tissue repair and maintenance.
Potential side effects: Too much vitamin C can cause lethargy, back pain, cavities, diarrhea, dizziness, flushing, headache, nausea and vomiting. People on dialysis, have kidney disease or are under age 2 are at greater risk of side effects.
Older adults with poor nutrition and too little vitamin C may get scurvy, marked by general weakness, anemia and gum disease.
Food sources: Oranges, grapefruit, other citrus fruit and green peppers are rich in this water-soluble vitamin.
Purpose: The water-soluble vitamin may thwart kidney stones and counters some forms of anemia and metabolic disorders. It also can fight nausea and vomiting during pregnancy and enhance babies’ brain development during pregnancy and infancy.
Potential side effects: Too much B6 leads to tingling (neuropathy) or muscle breakdown.
Food sources: You’ll get your daily needs via leafy greens, bananas, cantaloupe, papaya, fortified cereals, liver, poultry, salmon, eggs, chickpeas and other legumes.
Purpose: Vitamin B12 helps keep your blood and nerve cells healthy and helps form DNA, your genetic material.
Potential side effects: Too much B12 may cause skin rash. It also raises prostate cancer risk and deaths, the latter among hospitalized elderly patients. And vitamin B12 interferes with common drugs for diabetes, peptic ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Food sources: Fish, meat, eggs and dairy are rich in B12—clams and beef liver most of all. No plants yield B12 unless they are fortified, as most cereal is.
Purpose: Zinc plays a role in immune function, childhood growth and development, and the body’s insulin and thyroid function. According to Dr. Jabeen, it also helps tame cold symptoms—but, yet again, sleep and exercise are more effective.
Zinc is used in some sunscreens to block ultraviolet light and in topical ointments for burns, bites and diaper rash as a mild antiseptic and to curb bacterial growth.
How much to take: Teen boys and men both need 11 mg daily and teen girls, 9 mg, unless they’re pregnant, then they need 13 mg or breastfeeding, 17 mg. At 19 and above, women need 8 mg, 11 mg if pregnant and 13 mg if breastfeeding.
Food sources: Red meat, poultry, seafood, legumes and fortified breakfast cereals.
Purpose: Fish oil contains Omega-3 fatty acids which cut levels of triglycerides, a blood fat that can contribute to cardiovascular disease. Omega-3 also improves fetal development.
Potential side effects: Excess Omega-3 can lower immune function. It also can cause bad breath, tummy pain, heartburn, diarrhea, insomnia and skin rash. Too much Omega-3 can spike the unhealthy blood fat LDL, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.
Food sources: Seek Omega-3 fatty acids in cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardines. Some eggs, yogurt, juices, milk and soy beverages are fortified with Omega-3s.
The Bottom Line
Food is the best way to nourish your body. If you’re looking for healthy meal ideas, check out Memorial Hermann’s Everyday Well Eats™ database.