The scoop on supplements

By: Alison Dunn Mar 22, 2010

What you need to know about supplements before you start popping pills

Walk into any drugstore or pharmacy and you’re bound to be overwhelmed with all the vitamin and mineral supplements lining the shelves. You’re faced with a dizzying array of bottles containing everything from vitamin A to zinc. All-in-one multivitamins compete for shelf space with individual supplements like vitamin C, vitamin E, iron, folic acid and more. Men’s formulas, women’s formulas, age-specific formulas, prenatal… the list goes on. Confused?

At the most basic level, vitamins and minerals are complex chemical compounds that are vital to a healthy body. While vitamins and minerals don’t actually give the body energy, they do allow the body to transform what we eat into energy. We need to consume 13 major vitamins and more than 14 minerals every day to maintain our metabolic processes. How can you keep it all straight? Here are some tips to help cut through the confusion:

Food first

“People can really make it simple for themselves by following Canada’s Food Guide,” says Areli Hermanson, RD, a community nutritionist in Victoria, B.C. She says that by choosing five to 12 servings of grain products, five to 10 servings of fruits and veggies, up to four servings of dairy and two servings of lean meat or an alternative, you’ve already done all the work in getting your daily vitamin and mineral requirements.

The fact is, a vitamin supplement is not going to replace a good diet. Most of the food we eat today, like bread, cereals and milk are fortified with extra vitamins, so most people with healthy diets don’t need to take a vitamin supplement.

Supplemental insurance

For people who have a healthy diet but still want the extra assurance that comes with taking a supplement, most nutritionists recommend taking a standard one-a-day multivitamin plus minerals. Beware, however, that certain factors may make it necessary for a person to take a single dose of a particular vitamin or mineral. Those factors include:

  • Age: Age plays a large part in determining your vitamin and mineral needs. Adolescents, for example, have different needs because they are growing. Similarly, Health Canada recommends that all women of childbearing age take 400 µg per day of folic acid to prevent neural tube defects in a fetus. People over 50 are less able to absorb vitamin B12 and often need to take extra calcium and vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis.
  • Gender: Gender is another major factor in determining daily vitamin and mineral needs. Women, for example, need more iron due to blood loss during menstruation. Men, because they don’t menstruate, don’t need nearly as much iron. In fact, too much iron in men can cause a toxic condition called hemochromatosis, which is the accumulation of too much iron in the blood.
  • Activity level: While a normal amount of activity won’t really affect your nutrient levels, elite athletes or those who train extensively could require higher amounts of particular nutrients. Runners or tri-athletes, for example, have increased iron needs because their footfalls break down the red blood cells in their bodies.
  • Dietary choices: A person’s lifestyle and diet choices are another determining factor of nutrient needs. For example, a vegan who consumes no animal products may need to take zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D or riboflavin supplements, since these vitamins are most often found in animal products. People with severe food allergies or who are lactose intolerant may also need to supplement for the food they cannot eat. Similarly, people on severely calorie-restricted diets may need to supplement because they are not eating the amount of food required by Canada’s Food Guide.

But just because you identify with one of the groups above doesn’t mean you should dive into the shelves at the drug store and grab all the supplements you can find. Taking high amounts of certain nutrients can cause interactions and can even be toxic. Be sure to get advice from your doctor, nutritionist, pharmacist or other health professional before taking any supplements.

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.