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Almost one billion of us take vitamin and mineral supplements, provided by an industry fast approaching two hundred billion dollars per year. But why? Often, it’s because we believe that supplements will cure us our deficiencies, and prevent us from being run down and ill. We believe that they will help us get ahead, and help us to live a better life. We believe the promise of vitamin supplements over the more mundane advice to eat well, exercise often and get sufficient sleep. We believe that popping a multivitamin will cover all bases and make up for all of the things we should be doing but don’t really have the time, energy and motivation to do. And we do so, not only because there are often super fit, Olympic athletes marketing these products to us, but mostly because it’s easy. But do we really need supplements, or is it possible to get enough vitamins and minerals from the food we eat? Let’s find out, but before we do…
What are Vitamins?
Vitamins are chemicals which are essential for life. Our bodies can’t make vitamins themselves (with the exception of vitamin d which is produced when our skin is exposed to the sun) so we usually get them from our food. There are 13 different vitamins which can be divided into 2 teams:
*Water-soluble – this includes all of the B vitamins (thiamin -B1, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B6 – pyridoxine, folate or folic acid, vitamin B12 – cyanocobalamin) as well as vitamin C.
*Fat-soluble – this includes vitamins A, D, E and K.
Water-Soluble vitamins do not stay in your body. Instead your body will take what it needs and then you will excrete whatever is in excess. Fat-soluble vitamins on the other hand, are often stored in your body’s fat reserves, including in the liver and can build up to toxic levels if you are not careful.
What are Minerals?
When most of us think of minerals, the first thing that often comes to mind is something that you find in the earth, like iron and quartz. This is true, however there are also small amounts of some minerals in foods too. For instance, red meat is a good source of iron. Just like vitamins, minerals help your body grow, develop, and stay healthy. The body uses minerals to perform many different functions — from building strong bones to transmitting nerve impulses. Some minerals are even used to make hormones or maintain a normal heartbeat.
There are two kinds of minerals:
*Macro minerals – Macro means “large” in Greek (and your body needs larger amounts of macro minerals than trace minerals). The macro mineral group is made up of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur.
*Trace minerals – A trace of something means that there is only a little of it. So even though your body needs trace minerals, it needs just a tiny bit of each one. Trace minerals includes iron, manganese, copper, iodine, zinc, cobalt, fluoride, and selenium.
Why are vitamins/minerals important?
Vitamins and minerals are important because without them then we can’t see, hear, taste, smell, touch, breath, or do anything else. Vitamins and minerals keep our body working at an optimum. Vitamins and minerals don’t just keep us alive, they are life. When we don’t receive enough vitamins or minerals in our diet, then we become deficient and our body systems begin to fail. This is a fundamental contributor to the vast majority of physical and mental illnesses today, including but not limited to obesity, cancer, heart disease, anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
What are the best sources of vitamins/minerals?
‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ ― Hippocrates
The best sources of vitamins and minerals are whole foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, legumes, grain products including cereals, lean meats and seafood, eggs and vegetable oils (See the table below for a comprehensive list). In order to get all of the vitamins and minerals we need for optimum health, one of the most important things we need to do is to eat a large variety of such foods (all colours of the rainbow). Unfortunately, when we get busy we tend to eat the same things all of the time. Variety is also essential to having healthy gut bacteria/your immune system). It is also equally important to eat fresh produce to maximise the nutritional content you receive, as vitamins are affected by heat, light, storage conditions and other variables. For example, after just one week, apples lose over 75% of the vitamin C content, yet most of the apples on our supermarket shelves are over a year old.
It is also important to eat organic wherever possible – either buying it or growing it yourself. Not only does organic produce have less toxins, but they also contain more vitamins and minerals too. If you eat in this way then you actually don’t need to eat a large amount of food to get all of the vitamins you need in a day. Instead its more about eating the right foods in the right balance, to get the nutrients that you need. For example, if you ate a small yoghurt, some salmon, some pecan nuts, a piece of fruit, some brown rice, some spinach leaves, a carrot and an apple you would get all of the vitamins and minerals you need in a day. However, the reality is that many of us today don’t eat this way, which can result in us becoming deficient in some of the vitamins and minerals needed for optimum health.
Do we need to take vitamin/mineral supplements?
So, this raises the question, should we be taking vitamin and mineral supplements? Assuming you eat a large variety of foods, fresh and organic where possible, then most of the times you can get all of the vitamins and minerals you need from food, therefore taking supplements will be of no benefit. However, if you don’t have a great diet and/or are deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, then supplements may be of benefit to you.
It is important to pay close attention to your body, and how you feel in order to recognize early signs of deficiency. Feeling tired for no reason, having low energy, looking pale and always getting sick can all be signs of certain nutrient deficiencies, but there are many more symptoms. Please consult your doctor if you’re not feeling 100%.
If you have had any procedures such as lap banding or suffer from a disease such as cancer, then supplements may be required.
It is also important to know your family history, because sometimes vitamin and mineral deficiencies can have a genetic pre-disposition. For example, if your mum had a magnesium deficiency, then it may be a good idea to keep an on eye on your own magnesium levels and take supplements if you are found to be deficient.
Vitamin/mineral requirements also change through different life cycles, such as during pregnancy, newborn and elderly, and supplements during specific stages can play an important role in maintaining optimum health.
Certain diets or styles of eating which often exclude entire food groups (paleo, vegan, etc) can also cause nutritional deficiency, so be sure to do your homework here and understand what you need to meet your vitamin and mineral requirements. For example, if you don’t eat dairy then you need to ensure that you are meeting your calcium requirements in other ways.
It is also important to ensure that your lifestyle habits are not affecting your nutritional requirements. For example, habits such as drinking, alcohol, and smoking will strip your body of b group vitamins, and should be avoided.
Are Vitamin and mineral supplements safe?
Whilst vitamin and mineral supplements are generally considered safe, it is not uncommon for people to overdose and become hospitalized from using them. This rarely happens with vitamins and minerals sourced from food, as the amount of vitamins and minerals in food is perfectly balanced. And because most supplements are self-prescribed, we often over estimate what and how much we think we need. Such guesswork can be risky, especially when it comes to the fat-soluble vitamins/particular minerals which can easily build up in our bodies over time to toxic levels.
Furthermore, very few if any of the 100,000+ vitamin and mineral supplements on the market today are tested for safety or efficacy before they are sold on our shelves. It is not uncommon for some supplements (including multivitamins) to contain 100 times the vitamin/mineral dose specified on the label. Others contain drugs which shouldn’t be there at all, including (most commonly) anabolic steroids. In other words, there is no proof that they will do what they say they will, nor that they will not hurt you so we need to question how safe these supplements really are.
As such, we should treat all vitamins like all chemicals we put into our bodies – with caution. Know what you are taking and why. Otherwise, apart from expensive urine, you may be doing more damage than good, especially when you consider that most are synthetically made from products such as tar and acetone.
If you are going to take supplements then do your research and speak to your doctor as well as a nutritionist or naturopath first.
Food or Supplements?
There is no doubt that the line between food and supplements is becoming increasingly blurred. However, whilst supplements may have a place, none come close to replicating what you can get from food. And that’s because on top of containing all of the essential vitamins and minerals, food also contains thousands of compounds that work in a complex and often mysterious synergy. A synergy that supplements cannot replicate. However, what is proven is the relationship between a great diet and great health. After all we have been getting our vitamins and minerals from foods for millions of years, as have all living beings on the earth.
Q.Do you take vitamin and minerals supplements and if so why?
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