Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients, meaning that we must get them from our diets. They are important in many bodily functions such as growth, reproduction, and physiologic processes. Not consuming enough can result in deficiencies that can lead to permanent damage.
In general, the best sources for these nutrients are the foods that we eat. By eating a variety of foods from each main food group, you can ensure that you are getting a sufficient amount of these nutrients along with all the other benefits of eating a varied diet which include other important nutrients such as fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Getting vitamins and minerals from food can also improve the bioavailability (or degree to which they can be absorbed) of the nutrients.
While most populations can get a sufficient amount of vitamins and minerals from food, there are some who may benefit from taking a supplement. These populations include those who are going through periods of growth or repair, such as pregnant or lactating women, those who have diets that restrict certain food groups such as meats, dairy, or grains, those of advanced age, or those who have certain medical conditions that may decrease the absorption or increase the need of certain vitamins and minerals. These should be treated on a specific nutrient basis and not by a multivitamin or mineral supplement. Taking a vitamin or mineral supplement of a specific nutrient missing from your diet will prevent deficiency of that nutrient. Those who restrict total calories for weight loss or other purposes or those who have low appetites may benefit from a multivitamin or mineral supplement to cover the range of nutrients missing from their diet.
The large amount of other vitamins and minerals in a multi-supplement can be detrimental to the absorption of other vitamins and minerals, or when taken incorrectly over a period of time could lead to toxicity. Another issue related to supplement use is the question of purity and dosage of the supplement. These products are not heavily regulated and may contain other contaminants or a different actual dosage than what is advertised on the bottle.
Consuming a variety of foods should ensure proper vitamin and mineral intake along with other important nutrients for most populations. If you are someone with a restricted diet, have increased needs or decreased absorption due to age, medical condition, or period of growth, you may benefit from taking either a specific nutrient supplement or a multivitamin from a reputable processor.
Article by Alyssa Blume, UWGB Dietetic Intern