Now, the above statements by no means warrants a Get Out of Jail Free card to simply, say, reach for some powder vitamin C in place of eating a good, old orange…or take a pile of vitamins daily and still chow down on Chipotle for lunch every day. No, no, no. Experts agree that food is the ultimate source of nutrients and fuel for your body. And, supplements, well, they do just that — supplement your diet.
“Taking vitamins and nutritional supplements are a way to fill in any gaps in your nutrition,” say Keri Gans, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., a nutritionist in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet. And yes, there is some debate on the benefits (or lack there of), and the arguments for and against vitamins and supplements can get heated like whoa. But there are experts who say, hey, they can’t hurt (if you know what and how much) and others who are full on for them: “The studies that have been done on whether or not the body absorbs supplements haven’t been really conclusive,” says Gans. “When you look at food, you’re never looking at a single nutrient — it’s a mix — so when you look at how the body takes in one nutrient and then compare it to a food source, it’s really not comparable.”
The bottom line: If you want to eat the aforementioned orange (and greens and meat and dairy, etc.), and you can hit your individual nutritional marks with just food, then great. But if you can’t, or your diet requires a little more of this and a little more of that, or you want to take preventative measures for your health down the road, then read this guide to learn how to simplify your supplements and make being healthy a helluva lot less confusing.
At Every Age
No matter what your age, be sure to take a multivitamin every day. Think of it as the safety net of vitamins. It has just about everything in there, and depending on your health and your diet, it very well could be all you need in terms of that extra nutritional push. Read the label, check the levels, and then decide if you need to get those add-ons.
In Your 20s
This mineral is crucial for the body to make oxygen-transporting proteins in the blood (a.k.a. hemoglobin and myoglobin). While most people associate iron with red meat and spinach (Popeye!), there are many other ways to load up (most dried beans and green veggies have it, as well as salmon, tuna, and egg yolks). It may sound cavewoman-esque, but when your body is in full-reproduction mode from a biological standpoint (whether you’re ready or not), your monthly cycle is probably at its, um, best? (Read: heaviest). “It’s important to replenish lost blood,” says Morrison, who suggests having approximately 18 to 27 mg a day (which is also the amount often laced in a multi).
Calcium & Vitamin D
This dynamic duo is no longer just an old-lady staple. “You need to starting getting enough now to ward off osteoporosis and subpar bone health,” says Gans. Of course, calcium is pretty easy to get — grab a yogurt for breakfast or hover over the cheese plate — but Gans says that she finds many of her female clients don’t reach the three servings a day that’s needed — the equivalent of about 600 mg. As for vitamin D, which has gotten more press this year than Lindsay Lohan, there aren’t as many foods to choose from — only those fortified include cereal and milk or salmon — and the vitamin is crucial to have so that your body can absorb the calcium. Recently, after much hoopla, the IOM increased its recommendation of D from the archaic 400 units daily dose to 1,000. Gans suggests taking both with some fat, like after having a salad with olive oil, for better absorption (but more on that later) and to split the D dosage (500 and 500), because the whole thing at once can’t be absorbed — take one in the a.m. and the other at lunch, she says.
In Your 30s
If you plan on having babies before now, then you definitely want to move this vitamin up a decade, but since many women are getting pregnant in their 30s, now is the time to start taking folic acid (even before you actually start trying). It’s key to baby-brain development — so obviously you don’t want to mess with not having enough of that. And a little goes a long way — experts suggest about 1 mg per day (often the number in a multi, but check the label to be sure).
This immune-booster is like the Jennifer Aniston of the vitamin world — it just doesn’t get old. No matter how many new kids on the block come in and try to trump its stay-healthy power, this tried-and-true vitamin always comes out on top. Of course, oranges and citrus fruits in general stand out as the vitamin C powerhouse, but really all green veggies have it, too, as well as many fruits (think: blueberries). Whether it’s in pill or powder form, it doesn’t really matter in terms of how your body takes it in — but opt for a “buffered” formula (as in the C is not solo, but mixed with say, calcium, magnesium, potassium, etc.).
“A cocktail is easier on the stomach, and then you get benefits of other minerals, too,” says Morrison. As for OD-ing on C once winter strikes and germs are seemingly everywhere? “Anectodately, people swear by it, but there’s no real proof that when you take way more than usual that it does anything for you,” says Gans. “Better to take it consistently at a regular dose.” But if you do take too much: Don’t worry. The whole you-pee-it-out thing is true — because C is water-soluble. Aim to get around 1,000 mg a day (also typically the amount in a multi) but you can take a little extra to be sure you get it all, if you want.
Anyone who has dealt with a yeast infection knows that probiotics can be life changing. While, of course, any female can benefit from some good bacteria (especially when on prescription antibiotics), Morrison says he tends to have 30-something women who also deal with some digestive issues, and probiotics can help regulate their um, movements. There is no one-size-fits-all magic number in terms of quantity — more of a what’s-good-for-you basis (we wouldn’t expect anything less from our lady parts). “The reality is that every person has their own normal types and amounts of good bacteria, so it’s hard to put an overarching quantity that’s right for all — so, instead test out different kinds and see what you get the best results from,” says Morrison. “But what you do want to do is make sure that it has a combo of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.”
In Your 40s
Fish oil has stellar anti-inflammatory properties — plus, aids in brain, skin, and mood health — as well as decades of research showing its healthy-heart side effects by helping to lower triglycerides (the bad cholesterol). What you probably need daily: around 1,000 mg a day — but the key is that it needs to be molecularly distilled, a.k.a. highly purified. As for all the buzz on recent research that has trumped its heart-healthy powers? Some experts say that a single paper cannot counteract decades of research. Because most people don’t get two-to-three servings a day of fatty fish, which is where it’s naturally found (as in salmon and tuna), a supplement is the way to go. And remember we’re talking omega 3, not 6 — so, no, guac or olive oil doesn’t count for this one. Gans says that it’s best to start taking ample omega 3 way before now as a preventive measure. “Why wait until something happens — your heart isn’t working great or your cholesterol is high?” she says. “It’s better to be proactive.”
This mineral helps with lessening muscle cramps, so it’s especially good for those working out and feel sore all the time, and therefore could be taken, of course, at any age. However, in your 40s, you might feel a few more aches and pains than you have in previous years. Also, you might not sleep as well, and lack of magnesium could be to blame. “Just like it calms muscles, it calms the body all over and relaxes you, and therefore, promotes better sleep,” says Morrison, who says to take it at night so you can get the double benefit. Try to get approximately 200 mg of magnesium a day (and load up on magnesium foods in your diet, too, such as peanuts, raw broccoli, cooked spinach, and black beans).
In Your 50s
As you age, your body isn’t able to absorb this vitamin as well because your stomach doesn’t create the acids needed to do so on its own anymore. “Vitamin B12 is a large molecule that requires four steps in the body to be absorbed — the first of which is having hydrochloric acid — and the production of this acid declines in your 50s,” explains Morrison, who advises to try to get approximately 1,000 micrograms a day. Why is this so important? Sure, B12 helps keep your hair and skin looking amazing, but it also plays a vital role in your health — it converts carbs to glucose, needed for energy; regulates the nervous system; lowers your risk for depression and stress; plus, keeps your digestive system in check. And since your body doesn’t make it, you need to get it from foods (like eggs, dairy, meat) and then have your body convert it so it can get to work.
This powerful antioxidant protects eyes from macular degeneration — and typically when in pill form, it’s also mixed with zeaxanthin, an analog of vitamin A, also good for your vision, says Morrison, who suggests taking a supplement that has about 20 mg of lutein daily.
Timing Is Everything
If your stomach is on the sensitive side, couple them with food so that you’re not on empty (which can cause some nausea). As for those that are fat-soluble (such as vitamin D, E, A, and K), pair with some food that is fatty as well (i.e. olive oil, avocado etc.), as this allows the body to better absorb the nutrients. If you aren’t taking individual pills but instead a multi that has fat-soluble vitamins, then yes, take that with food, too. And as mentioned earlier, sometimes taking the max dose at once isn’t going to cut it (as in the case of calcium), so instead split it up and take pills twice daily instead of all at once — ask your physician or health adviser (even a pharmacist) when this applies. And if you’re an on-again, off-again vitamin taker, don’t bother. “You need to be consistent in order for them to work,” says Gans. “Taking here and there isn’t going to keep levels up and have any long-term benefits.”
Because who wants to swallow a pill that looks like it was made for a horse? Not fun. The good news: You don’t have to dread your daily dose or act like you have the same nutritional needs as a 5-year-old and secretly hit your Flintstone Vitamin stash. TryNature’s Made Multi Adult Gummies, Nature’s Made Calcium Adult Gummies, or Adora Calcium Supplement, which are basically like eating little chocolate goodness.
Vegans & Vegetarians
It’s a total myth that if you are vegan or vegetarian that you have to take an iron or B12 pill — it’s just more challenging to make sure you are getting all your nutritional needs (this applies to any diet that limits food groups, for that matter). If you are vegan or vegetarian, make sure you eat plenty of beans to get iron and have OJ or soymilk fortified with calcium, suggests Gans.
Conversely, if you eat a high-protein diet, then you might not be eating enough veggies, and if you are working out a lot, you might have some lactic acid lurking in those muscles and could be prone to muscle cramping. Load up on greens with every meal so you get the minerals needed (calcium, potassium, and magnesium) to decrease soreness and, of course, just to get all that good stuff (look for them in a multi, too).
Illustrations by Naomi Abel
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