Many Americans know the vitamins and minerals they should be consuming, but most are following a diet that lacks the nutrients they need for good health. For example, most Americans exceed the recommendations for added sugars, saturated fat and sodium, while 75% of the population do not eat the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, dairy or oils.
Due to these unhealthy eating patterns, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans found that many individuals do not consume the recommended intake of potassium, iron, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium and vitamins A, D, E and C.
“Most diets don’t tend to have enough legumes, dairy, vegetables and fruit,” says Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, CLT, a nutritionist in San Francisco, Calif. and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “What I usually tell clients is to slowly double their fiber intake, because foods high in fiber, such as beans, vegetables, whole grains and fruit, also have a lot of other nutrients you need.”
Angelone says that a healthy diet should help most people consume adequate amounts of essential nutrients—but your age, gender, and certain health conditions or medications can affect how much you need of certain vitamins and minerals or affect their absorption.
“The saying is ‘you are what you eat,’ but that is not always accurate,” says Angelone. “You could have a perfect diet, but if you can’t absorb or metabolize or break down the nutrients, you are not going to have what you need. You are what you can digest, absorb, transport and metabolize.”
So does this mean you need to take vitamin supplements?
Angelone says most nutrients can be acquired through food, except when they are limited due to eating habits or lifestyle.
For example, vegans may need to supplement with vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. Breastfed infants need vitamin D. Smokers may need more vitamin C. Because their digestive system is less efficient, older adults may benefit from a multivitamin with no more than 100% of the daily value of nutrients.
Certain medications also decrease absorption of nutrients. For instance, people on proton pump inhibitors—which treat acid reflux, ulcers, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—may need to take vitamin B12 and magnesium supplements.
“Supplements do not replace a healthy diet that includes a variety of minimally processed foods and plenty of raw and lightly cooked produce. As the name implies, they supplement a diet,” she says. “I would feel comfortable recommending a general multi-nutrient supplement with no more than 100% of the daily recommended value for people, but many individuals do not need one.”
Do you need a supplement during the COVID-19 pandemic?
You may wonder if you should add a vitamin supplement to increase your immunity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), there is no scientific evidence that any vitamin, mineral, or other dietary supplement can prevent or cure COVID-19. However, nutrients including zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin E help keep your immune system strong. But unless you have a deficiency, taking supplements won’t increase your immunity. In fact, high doses of some vitamins and minerals can lead to health problems. For example, too much zinc can cause nausea and vomiting.
Instead, the ODS recommends eating a nutritious variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein. Discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider, who may recommend a supplement in some circumstances.
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Want to learn more about vitamins, minerals, and your overall immunity? Read more about the vitamins and minerals you may be lacking and how they can help you function at your best in this companion article.