Do you even need vitamin and mineral supplements?

Should you, or shouldn’t you pop that vitamin pill, drink that vitamin water, and take the iron and calcium supplements? Read on for clarity.

Myupchar November 18, 2019 13:05:18 IST
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Do you even need vitamin and mineral supplements?
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) data show that vitamin A deficiency is a "public health problem" in parts of Africa and Asia

  • Most Indians have a vitamin D deficiency. This is because of the colour of our skin.

  • As important as calcium is for bone health and good teeth, we also wouldn't be able to move our muscles or maintain proper blood flow without this mineral

Unless you’ve managed to reduce food down to exact numbers — calories and micrograms of nutrients — it’s very hard to gauge if you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs. Add to that special cases like pregnancy, and your calculations can easily go out of the window.

So should you, or shouldn’t you pop that vitamin pill, drink that vitamin water, and take the iron and calcium supplements? 

Do you even need vitamin and mineral supplements

Representational image. Image source: Getty Images.

By and large, medical practitioners advise that you get your nutrients from food rather than pills. Yet, doctors also recommend vitamin supplements in some cases. For example, if you’re a darker-skinned person of any age (and most Indians qualify here), your doctor might have advised vitamin D supplements for you. Or if you’re a young woman, your doctor might have told you to take iron tablets.

These mixed signals can add to the confusion. So what should you do? Read on for clarity:

Vitamin A

Food sources: Animal products like whole milk, meats, fish liver oils and egg yolks are excellent sources of preformed vitamin A. Plant-based foods like spinach, amaranth, pumpkins, squash, and carrots contain provitamin A carotenoids (pigments that give carrots and red peppers their colour). The body turns both preformed and provitamin A into retinal and retinoic acid: the “active” forms of the vitamin, which the body then uses for maintenance of the eyes, heart, lungs, and kidneys.

How much of it do you need in a day: For men, 600 micrograms (mcg). For women, 600 mcg usually, and 950 mcg when they’re breastfeeding. For children, 350-600mcg. Just 100 grams of carrots a day are enough to get the recommended daily dose of this vitamin.

Verdict on supplements: Surprisingly, the World Health Organization (WHO) data show that vitamin A deficiency is a “public health problem” in parts of Africa and Asia. Deficiency of this vital vitamin is also one of the leading causes of preventable blindness globally. Most people don’t get adequate quantities of this vitamin from their diet alone. So supplements might be required in case of deficiency.

Vitamin C

Food sources: This one’s easy. Citrus fruits, berries, vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, bean sprouts, cauliflower, red and green peppers, chillies, potatoes and peas are all good sources of vitamin C. Particularly amazing is the Indian gooseberry or amla which is now in season.

How much of it do you need in a day: For men and women, 40 mcg. For lactating women, 80mcg. For children, 25-40 mcg. About 100 grams of oranges a day should get you over the minimum limit unless you’re pregnant. In which case, eat 200 grams.

Verdict on supplements: You don’t need vitamin C supplements unless your doctor prescribes them.

Vitamin D

Food sources: Your skin makes vitamin D on exposure to sunlight. Food sources of this vitamin include cod liver oil, egg yolk and mushrooms.

How much of it do you need in a day: For men and women, 5-15 mcg. For pregnant and lactating women, 5 mcg in addition to spending time in the sunshine. For children, 5 mcg. A spoonful of cod liver oil every day, in addition to exposure to sunlight, should get you over your daily minimum limit.

Verdict on supplements: Most Indians have a vitamin D deficiency. This is because of the colour of our skin - melanin pigments close to the surface prevent ultraviolet or UV light from reaching the appropriate layer of the skin to make vitamin D (good news is that the same pigmentation also reduces our chances of getting skin cancer). The result: most of us need to eat more egg yolks, or take supplements to meet our needs.

Plus, babies all over the world are always given vitamin D supplements because human milk is an insufficient source of this nutrient.

Calcium

Food sources: Milk, cheese and curd are rich in calcium. Non-dairy sources include seafood, legumes and dried fruit.

How much of it do you need in a day: For men and women, 400 milligrams daily. For lactating and pregnant women, 1000 mg. For children, 500 mg. A child would have to drink four or five glasses of milk to get their daily dose!

Verdict on supplements: As important as calcium is for bone health and good teeth, we also wouldn’t be able to move our muscles or maintain proper blood flow without this mineral. Yet every time we eat or drink something, our body only absorbs 25-30% of all the calcium in that food item. The result: with growing age and after menopause, the need for calcium increases in women’s body. Supplements can be used to maintain adequate levels.

Iron

Food sources: Spinach, broccoli, beetroot, potato, pomegranate, apple, whole grains, soybeans, kidney beans and chickpeas are rich in iron.

How much of it do you need in a day: For men, 28mg. For women, 30mg. For lactating women, 38mg. For children, 12-26mg. A grown woman would need to eat over 1 kilogram of raw spinach daily to meet her daily requirements (the US Department of Agriculture data show that 100 grams of raw spinach have 2.71 mg of iron). Or she could eat nearly half a kilogram of rajma daily.

Verdict on supplements: A recent estimate based on WHO criteria indicated that around 700 million people worldwide have marked iron-deficiency anaemia. Adolescent girls are more vulnerable to iron deficiency and anaemia due to an abrupt increase in lean body mass and decrease total blood volume along with menstrual blood loss. (As babies, our bodies have about 82 millilitres or ml of blood per kilogram. This drops to about 65ml per kilogram in girls and 70 ml per kilogram in boys after puberty.) Supplements are required to fulfil this need.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health. For more information, please read our article on Vitamin D Deficiency: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis.

This is the first story in a series on vitamin and mineral supplements. The next story will focus on when and why you need eight different types of vitamin B.

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