Most experts will agree that eating a variety of whole foods is the best way to fill your body with the vitamins and minerals necessary for healthy function. But how sure are you that you’re eating enough nutrients to keep you healthy? If you’re feeling a bit under the weather, is popping a few multivitamins your best bet to get back on track?
According to the Dietitians Association of Australia the answer is no. "Vitamins are needed for many of the essential chemical reactions in the body to occur including those involved in energy metabolism," they say. "But it is best to get vitamins from food rather than supplements. Taking large doses of certain vitamins can actually affect the body’s ability to stay healthy and function well," the DAA cautions.
Even though vitamins in supplements are designed to be the same as naturally occurring vitamins they still don’t seem to work as well. There is one main exception — folate — which in its synthetic form is actually better absorbed by the body than folate from food.
There are instances where supplementing with vitamins can be beneficial. Healthy bones, babies and bellies can all benefit from supplements taken correctly so here’s what you need to know to make an informed decision about supplementing your diet.
Calcium plays an essential role in creating strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle and heart function, transmitting nervous system messages and promoting enzyme function but according to the Australian Nutrition Survey about 90 per cent of women and 70 per cent of children do not reach the recommended dietary intake for calcium.
Australians receive most of their calcium needs from consuming dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. While it’s much better to get calcium from food if you have omitted dairy from your diet then you may need a supplement. But if you do take a supplement, don’t take more than the recommended amount as excess calcium may cause gastrointestinal upsets such as bloating and constipation.
Pregnant women have special needs and one of those needs is folate.
Folate, or folic acid, is a B-group vitamin found in a variety of foods such as asparagus, bran flakes, broccoli, brussels sprouts, chickpeas, dried beans, lentils and spinach and plays an essential role in reducing the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
While sufficient folate can be obtained from a healthy diet it is recommended that a woman take an additional 400mcg for a month before and three months after conception to help meet her baby’s requirements.
Iron is another supplement that may be beneficial during pregnancy. Your baby takes its iron from you during pregnancy — enough to last it for its first five to six months of life. While iron losses are reduced during pregnancy thanks to the pause of menstruation it’s still a good idea to include iron-rich foods such as red meat and foods that are high in vitamin C such as oranges in your diet when you are pregnant.
If you think you might be iron deficient, talk to your health care provider before taking supplements as they can be toxic in large amounts.
Your best bet is to take a specifically formulated pregnancy and breastfeeding multivitamin that includes folate for the duration of your pregnancy.
We all know that the secret to losing weight is to burn more calories than we consume. But if you’ve got a bit of a belly you’d like to shift then making sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D has been proven to help.
According to a study conducted by the Bloomberg School for Public Health, participants who ate three servings of dairy a day as part of a healthy diet gained less weight than their peers who ate little to no dairy. They also lost some belly fat.
But, it looks as though it wasn’t the calcium that assisted in the weight loss but rather an important little vitamin commonly known as the sunshine vitamin.
Vitamin D is needed by every cell in your body for proper function. Fat cells included. In fact, when vitamin D gets its hands on a fat cell it stimulates your body’s fat-blasting mechanism. It keeps the hunger and craving receptors in your brain in check and helps absorb other important weight loss nutrients such as calcium.
If you’re not getting enough vitamin D from the sun or through your diet — your doctor can do a quick blood test to check — then it might be worth considering a supplement, especially during the winter months.
Whether you decide to supplement or not, remember that taking vitamin and mineral supplements really is a short-term measure. First change your diet and lifestyle and if you still feel the need to reach for the pills, talk to your doctor first to make a more informed and researched choice.
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