Can a Vitamin Meet Your Body’s Needs?

What you can and can't get from a pill
Handful of vitamins

A lot of great things come in pill form — life-saving therapies for deadly diseases, symptom-easing remedies for the cold and flu, and, yes, vitamins and supplements.

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But when it comes to the essential nutrients our bodies need to thrive, it’s hard to beat what nature provides. With that in mind, here dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, LD, RD, explains what you need to know. 

Myth: Whatever you don’t get from your diet, you can get from a vitamin

So many of my patients tell me they know their diet is not great but that I should not worry because “at least” they take a multivitamin.

Multivitamins are not a sure-fire way to get what you need, though. That’s because, aside from a few exceptions such as folic acid and vitamin D, the vitamins and minerals you get from whole foods are significantly superior to the same nutrients delivered in a pill.

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For example, a 2011 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that the key components in broccoli and cruciferous vegetables — components that provide wonderful health benefits such as helping prevent certain cancers and decreasing inflammation in the body — were poorly absorbed and lacked value in pill form. And an alarming recent study found that calcium supplements can increase the risk of heart attack. As a result, many doctors recommend that people with a high risk of heart disease get their calcium through diet rather than supplements. On top of that, another recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that certain dietary supplements, including multivitamins, folic acid, iron and copper, appeared to be associated with an increased risk of death in older women.

This is not to say that all vitamins are bad — especially if you use them after consulting a doctor first. Some essential vitamins and nutrients actually are absorbed better in pill form. Folic acid (the synthetic version of folate) is better absorbed in a supplement for pregnant women and women of childbearing years to prevent birth defects. Vitamin D may be most beneficial in pill form because the pill version contains the type of vitamin D that we absorb best — the type we get through the sun, not through food. Trials about the benefits of vitamin D supplements are under way, and we should know more in the next few years.

In the meantime, don’t discount the value of getting your vitamins and minerals from whole foods.

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How to get the most from your food

Here are a few tips for getting the nutrients you need from food.

  1. First, make sure that you’re not overcooking your greens. Lightly steaming your broccoli and spinach is the best way to draw nutrients out of the plant cell while not eliminating the nutrients altogether, which may occur when boiling.
  2. Consider food combinations that enhance nutrient absorption. Iron, for example, is best absorbed in the presence of vitamin C, so when eating an iron-rich food such as spinach, throw in some fruits or veggies that are chock full of C. Examples include mandarin oranges, strawberries or red pepper sticks. (Keep your eye out for a future blog post on combining food for optimal nutrient absorption!)
  3. Keep a fruit and vegetable bowl right on the kitchen counter. A study in the journal Environment and Behavior found that college students ate more fruits and vegetables from clear glass bowls than from opaque bowls. Bottom line: If you can see it on your counter, you’re more likely to eat it.
  4. Spend some weekend time cutting your favorite vegetables (think red pepper sticks, carrots, etc.) and putting them in individual sandwich bags. They make an easy snack to grab during the week on your way to work or school. 

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