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Although there’s lots of disagreement as to whether multivitamin supplementation is really necessary, it’s pretty hard to argue with the fact that the individual vitamins and minerals that make them up are undoubtedly necessary for human survival. In fact, they play important roles in protecting organs like the heart, while helping to prevent various forms of disease. Remember that although food is supposed to be our main source of nutrition, today’s processed foods leave much to be desired nutritionally and are often significantly depleted of these important nutrients. Thus, the real issue when choosing a multivitamin involves taking a look at your own diet and lifestyle, then finding a good quality product that supplies everything you need, without too much of anything you might be getting already.
The following micronutrients are not always present in sufficient quantities in the average person’s diet:
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that all adults over 50 find some way to meet the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B-12, whether through fortified foods or supplements. The reason behind this is that our ability to absorb this important vitamin through food declines with age, meaning that unless the food is purposely fortified with lots of extra B-12, it is unlikely that we are going to get enough out of it. This makes a very good case for supplementation.
Unlike most other vitamins, vitamin D is actually produced in your skin, via a process that requires exposure to sunlight. In some parts of the world, sunlight can be very scarce during the winter months. As if this weren’t enough of a problem already, people in parts of the world where there actually is sufficient sunlight are increasingly covering themselves with sunscreen lotions, or even avoiding the sun altogether. On top of all of this, vitamin D synthesis in the skin is yet another ability that decreases gradually with age.
Increasing one’s intake of folic acid has been found to reduce the risk for certain types of cancer. This is especially true for people who drink alcohol regularly. In addition, certain types of birth defects like spina bifida occur less often in the children of women that supplemented with folic acid before conception. In sufficient quantities, it also lowers homocysteine levels, which can increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.
Iron deficiency is the leading nutritional deficiency, especially among young children, adolescents and women of childbearing age. These particular age groups are subject to this problem primarily as a result of rapid growth, which depending on one’s diet, might require significantly more than what they are getting in their food. For instance, the iron in red meats, fish and poultry is actually easier for the body to absorb than the iron found in plant foods (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This can create a deficiency among those who shun meat in their diets.
One thing that’s also important to consider is that the Daily Values (DV) listed on most supplements in the U.S. today are not the same as the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), also referred to as the Recommended Daily Allowance. The DV is an older standard that dates back to the late 1960s and although considerably outdated, is still found on the labels of many of today’s supplements. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has since issued their Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), which include both the current RDAs, as well as the Adequate Intake (AI) that is established for those nutrients for which there is insufficient data available to establish an updated RDA.
If you have ever taken a good look at the label on the back of a multivitamin supplement, you have probably noticed that not every vitamin and mineral included meets 100 percent of the DV. Some tend to have much more than the DV of certain nutrients, while containing only small percentages of others. Calcium is one such nutrient, primarily because it’s a rather “bulky” mineral and the pill would be far too large. The same can be said of magnesium, along with the fact that it is also plentiful enough in foods that 100 percent in a pill alone would not be considered necessary. Many of the others such as potassium, phosphorus and chloride are also found in sufficient quantities in the average person’s diet, giving supplement manufacturers more reason to focus on those that are either harder to come by, or harder to absorb.
Here are some other points to consider:
This vitamin can come from both retinol and beta-carotene. However, research suggests that too much retinol can increase the risk of osteoporosis in older adults. For this reason, it is recommended to find a supplement in which the vitamin A comes from beta-carotene.
The B complex group is supposed to contain B-1 (thiamine), B-2 (riboflavin), B-3 (niacin), B-5 (pantothenic acid), B-6 (pyridoxine), B-12 (cobalamins), biotin and folic acid. Not all multivitamin supplements contain the entire group and not all in sufficient quantities, either. An insufficient quantity of B vitamins should give one pause for thought, since this group is critically important for clearing the body of homocysteine, which in higher levels can lead to heart disease.
A few others that many of us typically fall short in include vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, iron and calcium.
While all of this information can serve as a guide for making a more informed decision on what to buy, remember that multivitamins are meant to supplement your diet, not replace the food you eat or provide all of your nutritional needs on their own. You will also find that there are multivitamin supplements geared specifically toward older adults, as well as men, women and children. One further consideration is how active a lifestyle you lead, as many of the daily recommended amounts of these nutrients are based on the lifestyle of a typical, sedentary adult. For best results, you can always have your doctor make a recommendation based on your current health profile, lifestyle and needs.