Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Vitamin Debate: Pro (Part 2)

Part 2 of the debate will discuss why vitamin supplements can be beneficial to certain demographics.  Some examples include pregnant woman, the elderly, vegans, and people who don’t get enough sunlight. There are several reasons why certain people should take a daily supplement.  If you fit into one of the following groups, I would recommend a daily supplement:

  • Vegans: Supplementation is especially important for vegans, as vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products
  • Pregnant: Pregnant women need to take a daily prenatal vitamin to ensure their folic acid needs are met in order to reduce the chance of birth defects
  • Elderly: As we age, our bodies require extra Calcium and vitamin D to prevent frail bones and osteoporosis. It’s easier for the elderly to fill these vitamin/mineral needs with a pill, especially if their appetite has decreased so they aren’t eating enough.  Additionally, the body doesn’t absorb vitamin B12 as well thus requiring B12 injections to meet daily requirements. 
  • Inadequate sun: Some people have a hard time getting enough vitamin D from food sources and the sun. In the winter, it's impossible to produce vitamin D from the sun if you live north of Atlanta because the sun never gets high enough in the sky for its ultraviolet B rays to enter the atmosphere.  Also, dark-skinned individuals don’t absorb vitamin D from the sun well.
  • Alcoholic: Long-term alcoholics have a hard time absorbing a number of nutrients due to decreased digestive enzymes and damage to stomach and intestinal cells so they are advised to take thiamine, folate, and a B-complex vitamin.  Also, they tend to have poor diets since they usually choose alcohol more than fruits and vegetables. 

The Bottom Line
A patient once asked me if he could survive on a multivitamin alone because his body will break down his meals into vitamins anyways.  I explained that a MVI is made up of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), while food provides macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat) that fuel the body.  Additionally, vitamins are useless without macronutrients to shuttle them around: think of fats as the subway commute for vitamin E.  This story emphasizes the importance of food vs supplements.  A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low fat dairy, and lean meat will provide the needed macro and micronutrients. Supplements can’t take the place of a balanced healthful diet but they can ensure that you are receiving basic nutrition: think of a MVI as added insurance that you are meeting your nutrition needs.  If you are susceptible to vitamin deficiencies (see list above), vitamin supplementation is recommended.  If you are an average healthy person, your first priority should be to maintain a healthy diet and use a MVI to fill in the holes.

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