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Impact of vitamins on health: Do we need supplements?

More than 86 percent of American adults regularly take vitamins or supplements, despite recent findings that only about one-quarter of those polled actually need them.

That’s according to a 2019 online Harris Poll survey conducted on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association. There is a nationwide obsession with nutritional supplements, even though approximately 24 percent have test results indicating they have a nutritional deficiency.

Do vitamins really work, or are they just a ploy designed by companies to make a profit?

Understanding the impact of vitamins on health — from their potential benefits to possible complications — can help people decide whether supplements are a good choice for them.

Why do we need vitamins?

Vitamins are micronutrients that are necessary for our bodies to function correctly. These organic compounds are needed in small quantities but play an important role in maintaining good health. The body cannot synthesize them in sufficient amounts, so obtaining them through diet or supplements is essential.

Vitamins come in two kinds: those that dissolve in fat and those that dissolve in water.

Vitamins A, D, E, and K dissolve in fat. This means they can be stored in our body’s fat and stay there for a while. On the other hand, B vitamins and vitamin C dissolve in water. Our bodies can’t store them for long, so we need to eat or drink them often.

How do they promote health?

Vitamins have numerous functions in the body.

Vitamin C, a protein that gives structure to bones, teeth, skin and other tissues, is needed for collagen synthesis. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, crucial for bone health and the functioning of nerves and muscles. B vitamins affect energy metabolism, nerve function and blood cell production. Without adequate vitamin intake, we risk developing deficiencies and related health problems.

Several factors can affect how the body absorbs vitamins, including age, pregnancy, breastfeeding and other medical conditions.

Common deficiencies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent of Americans have at least one vitamin deficiency.

■ Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide, affecting nearly 30 percent of the global population. This essential nutrient plays a crucial role in developing red blood cells, so a lack of it can cause anemia. Women and vegans are particularly susceptible to it, but iron-rich foods such as beef, spinach and beans can help meet daily requirements.

■ Vitamin D deficiency is another common problem and affects over 1 billion people worldwide. It can lead to serious health concerns such as osteoporosis, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. While the primary source of vitamin D is sunlight, food sources such as fatty fish, egg yolks and fortified products can help combat the deficiency.

■ Vitamin B12 is vital for red blood cell formation, brain function and DNA synthesis. Vegetarians and vegans are at risk of B12 deficiency as it is mainly found in animal products. Low levels of B12 can lead to serious complications, including nerve damage and pernicious anemia. Consuming fortified foods or B12 supplements can help meet the daily requirements.

■ Vitamin C deficiency, which causes a disease known as scurvy, is rare in developed countries but still prevalent in some parts of the world. The deficiency can lead to bleeding gums, joint pain and anemia. Citrus fruit, bell peppers and leafy greens are all good sources of vitamin C.

■ Magnesium is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in various body functions such as muscle, nerve and bone health. Despite its importance, many people overlook it. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include muscle cramps, fatigue and irregular heartbeat. Foods rich in magnesium include almonds, spinach and legumes.

■ Vitamin A is essential for vision, immune system health, growth and development. Deficiencies can lead to blindness and increase the risk of infections. It’s a significant public health concern in developing countries, particularly among children. Foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots and spinach are rich in vitamin A.

Do we need supplements?

While a well-balanced diet remains the cornerstone for combating vitamin deficiencies, the modern era has underscored the significance of vitamin supplements.

In a recent statement, Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, emphasized that supplements typically offer 100 percent coverage of the daily recommended allowance for essential vitamins and minerals.

This insight underscores the importance of supplements in ensuring balanced nutrition.

Maintaining a well-rounded diet that fulfills daily nutritional requirements can often pose a challenge in our fast-paced world.

Specifically, vegans often grapple with ensuring a nutritionally complete diet, given that some of the necessary nutrients, such as vitamin B12, cannot be found in a vegan diet. But vegan multivitamins and probiotics can act as a nutritional safety net to fill potential gaps in a vegan diet.

The role of supplements

When chosen correctly and taken in conjunction with a balanced diet, supplements can play a vital role in optimizing health, ensuring a full spectrum of nutrients essential for our bodies to function at their peak.

While whole foods and a balanced diet remain the foundation of good health, supplements ensure nothing falls through the cracks regarding nutrition. Supplements can make all the difference, especially for those in specific life stages, with particular dietary preferences or facing unique health challenges.

In every health issue, consultation is critical. Before embarking on any supplement regimen, people should contact their health care provider to tailor the best approach for their needs.

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