Almost everyone has some experience with vitamin supplements, even if the last ones you took were shaped like a cartoon family. However, with thousands of products on the market, the process of choosing the right vitamins and supplements can be overwhelming. The process is made even more complicated by contradicting information and misleading advertising. You know there is a way to improve your long-term health, but how can you make sure you are taking the right vitamins and supplements?
The key is to know what essential vitamins and nutrients to look out for, to carefully assess your diet, and to consider how your lifestyle and long-term health goals come into play. Remember that vitamins and supplements are not meant to replace a healthy diet. Beyond nutrients, fresh fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants, phytochemicals, and fiber, all of which are important.
At the most basic level, vitamins are essential organic substances your body’s cells require to function, grow, develop and heal properly. (In this context, “organic” means they contain the element carbon.) There are 13 “essential vitamins”: vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins, B6, B12, biotin, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, and thiamine. Choline and carnitine were recently added as vitamin-like nutrients that the body needs, so technically there are now 15 essential vitamins. A major unaddressed deficiency in any one of these vitamins could lead to potential health problems.
In addition to the 13 essential vitamins your body needs, there are 16 essential minerals, all of which you might recognize from the periodic table. Unlike vitamins, minerals are “inorganic,” meaning they do not contain a carbon atom.
Macrominerals are the minerals that your body needs in relatively large amounts; trace minerals are those that your body needs in small amounts. The essential macrominerals are calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulfur. The trace minerals your body requires are iron, zinc, iodine, chromium, copper, fluoride, molybdenum, manganese, and selenium.
Together, the essential vitamins and minerals make up the total micronutrients required for proper functioning of the body. We’ll examine the benefits of these nutrients and how to get enough.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin in foods either as preformed vitamin A (retinol and retinyl esters) or provitamin A carotenoids (like beta carotene). Preformed vitamin A is already in the right biological form while carotenoids need to be converted to retinol in the body.
Vitamin A supports eye, heart, and lung health along with immune function and reproduction. The macula and lens of the human eye are rich in carotenoids, which act as antioxidants that protect the eye from oxidative stress often involved in eye health issues. Topical cosmetic products containing retinol have been shown to support skin health. One study found that topical application of a retinol cream significantly improved photoaging of the skin, or premature aging due to sun exposure.
Vitamin A rich foods include liver, salmon, grass-fed dairy, and orange and yellow plant foods as well as kale and spinach. Vitamin A can be supplemented alone but is most commonly found in multivitamin formulations.
Vitamin B12 is perhaps best known for its role in converting food into energy. It can also support cognitive and nervous system health and is involved in red blood cell formation. Vitamin B12 is naturally found in the diet only found in animal products but may also be found in foods fortified with the vitamin. Those eating a plant-based diet (such as vegans and vegetarians) require supplementation or eating enough fortified foods to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency.
When choosing a supplement, look for active forms of the vitamin, such adenosylcobalamin or methylcobalamin, for easier absorption and use in the body. Vitamin B12 can be found as a stand-alone vitamin or in vitamin B complex and multivitamin formulations.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that is also an antioxidant, which means it can help manage oxidative stress that plays a causal role in various health conditions. It is needed for collagen production and to help manage oxidative stress that can impair collagen formation. Vitamin C also improves the absorption of nonheme iron, the form of iron in plant-based foods, and plays an important role in immune function.
Food sources of vitamin C include citrus, peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kiwis, and strawberries. Whole food forms and extracts of vitamin C may be more effective than the synthetic ascorbic acid commonly found in many commercial supplements. Care/of’s Vitamin C supplement contains vitamin C from acerola cherries and also includes helpful bioflavonoids often present in vitamin C rich foods to support absorption and utilization.
Vitamin D is considered a nutrient of public health concern since a large portion of the U.S. population is deficient in the vitamin. It can be challenging to get enough from foods and sun exposure alone. Environmental factors like pollution, location (distance from equator), use of sunblock (blocks UVB rays which are needed for vitamin D production), pigment of skin (more melanin present can make it more challenging to absorb UV rays), and season impact vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption and bone health as well as for maintaining a healthy immune system. A large body of research now exists on the extensive role of vitamin D in many aspects of immune health. In addition to getting healthy levels of sun exposure and increasing intake of foods rich in vitamin D, supplementation of vitamin D can help meet your daily needs.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin made up of 8 different molecules (such as tocopherols and tocotrienols). This vitamin doubles as an antioxidant that can help manage oxidative stress. In supplements, it can be found alone, in multivitamins, or added as an ingredient to help maintain freshness due to its antioxidant properties. A 2020 randomized control trial on the use of vitamin E along with vitamin C and raspberry leaf extract showed positive results in supporting skin appearance including anti-aging effects.
Some additional research has emerged that may point to tocotrienols as the safer and more effective form of vitamin E to use in supplementation. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin E is 15mg or 22 IU daily for those 14 and older. Some of the best food sources of vitamin E include sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, and salmon.
Vitamin K consists of two types: K1 (phylloquinone) and K2 (multiple types of menaquinones). K1 is the main dietary form of vitamin K and is present mainly in green leafy vegetables. K2 is mainly produced by bacteria in the gut and is also present in small amounts in animal-based foods and fermented foods.
Vitamin K plays various roles in the body, including involvement in blood clotting and bone metabolism. The K2 type is often combined with vitamin D, like in our Calcium Plus supplement to support bone health, since the two vitamins work together synergistically. The RDA for vitamin K is 90-120 mcg.
Most people associate calcium with strong bones and teeth, for which it is definitely needed, but it also has other important functions in the body. Calcium helps the heart and other muscles contract, aids in nervous system function, and supports the release of hormones and enzymes, andsupports bone health.
The RDA for calcium is 1,000-1,300mg. Dairy is one of the primary sources of dietary calcium, along with non-dairy calcium sources like cooked dark leafy greens and small bone-in fish. The calcium in Care/Of products is plant based derived from algae that comes naturally combined with other minerals. Calcium supplementation may be particularly useful for those who do not consume dairy or have limited intake of calcium-rich foods. Calcium citrate is better absorbed than calcium carbonate by about 22-27%, so choosing a supplement with calcium citrate over calcium carbonate may be a better option for someone who wants to get a higher dose of absorbable calcium per serving.
One of the primary functions of iron is to help transport oxygen in the blood. Four atoms of iron reside inside each molecule of hemoglobin, which can bind up to four molecules of oxygen. A similar molecule called myoglobin also uses iron to provide oxygen inside muscle cells and connective tissue.
There are two types of iron: heme (found in animal based products) and nonheme iron (found in plant based sources). Heme iron is more easily absorbed, while nonheme iron absorption can be boosted by simultaneous intake of vitamin C. Proper gut health and stomach acid production are also needed for proper iron absorption. It is best to get iron from food intake; however, if blood levels are measuring low, the person may be instructed by their healthcare provider to supplement. Those who menstruate or those who are pregnant have increased needs for iron.
Zinc is an essential mineral for immune system function, wound healing, and DNA synthesis and repair. Part of its immune support occurs in zinc’s role in maintaining a healthy intestinal barrier. Good food sources of zinc include oysters, which have the highest amount of zinc, as well as other shellfish, beef, liver, nuts and seeds, and dairy.
Magnesium is known to be involved in over 300 processes in the body. It is an essential mineral in bones and muscle function and recovery. Alcohol consumption can deplete levels of magnesium and other electrolytes. Magnesium can also help manage PMS symptoms by managing prostaglandin levels, relaxing the uterus, and supports muscle health and recovery.
The RDA of magnesium is 310-420mg, but some sources say that this is just the bare minimum required to prevent deficiency but is not enough for optimal functioning. Magnesium-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, which contain a whopping 156 mg magnesium per one ounce, as well as chia seeds, almonds, cashews, and spinach. Magnesium supplementation can be of great benefit since magnesium insufficiency is all too common.
Folate, also known as vitamin B9, plays a vital role in DNA synthesis and cell division, making it essential in pregnancy for fetal development and neural tube formation. It is also required in red blood cell production. Like all B vitamins, folate also helps with converting food into energy.
Food sources of folate include dark leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, beef liver and lentils. Folate can also be found in B complex supplements, multivitamins and prenatals. Look for the active form as methylated folate rather than the synthetic folic acid form.
Another nutrient to note is choline, which is widely understood to play a critical role in nerve and brain function. Meat, eggs and poultry are all excellent sources of choline. Strict vegetarians may want to consider taking a choline supplement.
In addition to vitamins and minerals, there are other nutrients that are backed by established research, including omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, antioxidants such as CoQ-10, are gaining recognition for their essential role in the healthy function and immunity of the body’s cells. These examples represent opportunities to improve wellness beyond the basics of vitamin and mineral intake.
The US Food and Drug Administration sets a Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for the essential nutrients to help people manage their nutrition.
The RDA is simply how much of each nutrient is needed each day for healthy adults. It is typically measured and listed using one of three different units: milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg), or international units (IU). The nutrition labels on foods will list the nutrients they contain, as well as the Daily Value, which is a percentage of your RDA for each particular nutrient.
This information is helpful to ensure that you are consuming adequate nutrients on a daily basis. One way to figure out which vitamins and supplements may be useful to take is to log your food in an online nutrition calculator to understand how close you come to the RDA for each essential vitamin and mineral. You can also meet with a registered dietitian to help you analyze your diet for adequacy and get personalized support for appropriate supplementation.
If you have a diet that’s particularly low or high in certain foods, you could be getting too much or too little of certain nutrients. For example, vitamin B12 is commonly found only in animal sources, so if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you may be getting less than the RDA of that vitamin. In the case of iron, having too much can be as dangerous as having too little. You should get your iron levels checked before supplementing with iron.
For some healthy nutrients, the FDA doesn’t issue clear directions on daily intake, but helpful guidance is available. For example, the USDA recommends eating fatty fish or seafood twice a week, which may be difficult for some people.
However, regular consumption of omega-3 fish oil capsules can provide similar benefits. There is also a great deal of emerging science supporting the potential benefits of herbal and antioxidant supplements, which have shown results in certain cases.
The RDA is a useful benchmark for the bare minimum of the essential nutrients an average person needs. However, this one-size-fits-all approach can still leave potential gaps in your nutrient intake. Depending on your health goals and lifestyle, the RDA may be lower than your actual needs.
Factors like age, gender, fitness level, and geographic location can mean that a person needs more or less of a given nutrient. For example, women entering their 50s might be more in need of bone-supporting vitamins to help maintain healthy bones. People thinking about getting pregnant, on the other hand, may need more of a different set of vitamins, like folate and iron.
You also may want to get more or less of certain vitamins depending on your specific short-term and long-term health goals. If you have trouble sleeping, or if you’re concerned about long-term bone health because of your family history, taking supplements could help.
Even the most health-savvy individuals could benefit from a professional opinion or alternative perspective. Additionally, a brief online assessment could be a convenient way to receive recommendations tailored to your specific needs and goals. As scientific research into nutrition continues to progress, online resources are a valuable tool in navigating this important topic.