Experts’ opinions on the health benefits of vitamins change about as often as their stances on the benefits of coffee, eggs and carbs. In other words: One study says good for you, the next one says not so much.
Despite these conflicting messages, most evidence suggests that whole foods provide the best source of nutrients for our bodies. But that doesn’t mean vitamin supplements can’t play a role in boosting overall health. Why? Because, as some experts point out, our bodies can’t create many of the key nutrients we need to be in top form.
There’s also a growing area of research that suggests foods grown today are less nutrient-dense than their predecessors, due to changes in farming practices. “That’s why supplements can make sense,” says Dr. Clifford Rosen, clinical research director at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and a leading global expert on vitamin D.
Bottom line: Ask your doctor for a blood test to find out if you’re deficient in an essential nutrient. If you’re concerned about deficiencies, due to either diet or lifestyle, supplements can help fill the gaps.
Finding the best multi
Think of a multivitamin as your safety net — especially if you’re vegan, on a restricted diet or just not able to get your recommended five to seven fruits and vegetables a day.
Here’s what to look for when choosing a multi: Opt for one that isn’t packed with nutrients you already get from food. (These include vitamins C and K, so if your multi isn’t high in these, no biggie.) However, even with the best diet you’re most likely to miss out on iron, calcium and vitamin D, so these are the ones you want in your multivitamin.
What about specific supplements?
Whether there’s a group of vegetables you don’t like or you’ve decided to cut carbs (putting you at risk for lower levels of B vitamins), meat (low iron) or dairy (low calcium and vitamin D), specific supplements can be a smart choice.
What’s up with fat versus water-soluble?
Before you take any supplement you must find out if it’s fat- or water-soluble.
Fat soluble vitamins include A, D, E and K. They’re stored in your body’s fatty tissue and best taken with healthy fats (like nuts, olive oil or avocados), which help your body better absorb them. Because these vitamins also stay in your system longer, it’s easier to build up toxic levels, so never exceed recommended daily doses unless advised by a physician to do so.
Water-soluble vitamins like all those in the B family and C dissolve in water and are absorbed in the digestive tract, so they need to be replenished daily. We lose them whenever we sweat or hit the ladies’ room.
Three trendy new supplements
1. Biotin (a.k.a. Vitamin H)
What it does: This energy booster helps the body better metabolize fats, proteins and carbs.
Hidden benefits: This nutrient keeps nails strong and hair healthy and shiny.
Real-food options: Avocado, cauliflower, cottage cheese.
What it does: It increases endurance to help you work out harder for longer.
Hidden benefits: It may fight chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia by boosting energy levels and improving mental clarity.
Real-food options: Foods high in vitamin B2, such as chicken and almonds.
3. Grape-Seed Extract
What it does: This free radical fighter may protect the heart and reduce Alzheimer’s risk.
Hidden benefits: It can smooth and even out skin by boosting collagen.
Real-food option: Grape-seed oil in salad dressing.
Four healing supplements
1. Probiotics to banish belly fat
A recent study from the University of Manitoba showed that people who took probiotics lost 3 to 4 percent more body fat over six weeks. Turns out an increase in good gut bacteria may help turn on “fat burners” and limit the space available inside cells to store fat.
2. Fish oil soothes aches and pains
The anti-inflammatory fatty acids in fish oil can reduce muscle and joint tension, especially from computer-related sore neck and shoulders.
3. Vitamin D3 combats colds and flu
A Harvard study reveals this D vitamin can reduce colds and sinus infections in children who take it through the winter.
4. Vitamin C trumps seasonal allergies
Vitamin C plus bioflavonoids (pigments in fruits and veggies) may help prevent the release of histamine, which cues an allergic response.