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Vitamins and Supplements: What You Should Know

They are on every corner, in every mall, in almost every supermarket, and all over social media. I'm talking about vitamins and supplements.

Maybe you walk past the aisle and wonder if you should glance more intently. Maybe you see a social media post and you wonder if you should read it and possibly reach out to the author. Maybe your health is less than 100% and you are considering supplementation to help you achieve your wellness goals.

But it's overwhelming. Where do you begin? Should you begin at all?

More than half of Americans take a vitamin or mineral supplement. With the industry valued at $30 billion, it's becoming more difficult to understand whether the motivation is health benefits or profit margins.

To answer this question appropriately, one must review the scientific literature. Anecdotal stories of life-altering results are inspiring and interesting, but generalizable recommendations truly must arise out of well-designed studies. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published a viewpoint article on this topic, pooling the available data and ultimately summarizing their recommendations.

The lead author, Dr. JoAnn Manson from Harvard Medical School, states "The key message is that for most of the population, it's best to get these vitamins and minerals from the diet, from foods. That's where they're best absorbed, and they're in the optimal biological ratios."

As we begin, as a society, to understand more about our food supply and how our food can help or hurt us, this shouldn't come as a surprise. We truly ARE what we eat!

With that being said, the authors did point out that some subgroups may benefit from supplementation depending on their conditions or age. Their recommendations are as follows:

* Pregnancy: folic acid, prenatal vitamins

* Infants and children: vitamin D until weaned from breastfeeding, iron from age 4-6 months

* Midlife and older adults: some may benefit from supplemental vitamin B12, vitamin D and/or calcium

* Other high-risk subgroups: Medical conditions that interfere with nutrient absorption or metabolism, osteoporosis, selected medication use, and others

On the flipside, one might ask "what's the risk?" If an individual is currently taking multiple vitamins and supplements, is there any harm?

The short answer is possibly, for multiple reasons. The vitamin and supplement industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, leaving the consumer to question the purity of the product. In addition, many vitamins are fat-soluble (vitamins A, D, E, and K), meaning they can accumulate to toxic levels in the body if taken in extremely large doses.

So, if you are going to take vitamins or supplements, be cautious with high dose supplementation and search for products that have undergone independent quality control testing (labels containing U.S. Pharmacopeia or NSF International).

Focus on your dietary intake and maximize the nutritional value of your daily meals. Our ancestors knew the importance of their food and it's time we return to that value system!

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