In theory, oral vitamins may seem like the no-brainer solution for maintaining perfect health, except we all know this isn’t the case. A multivitamin may feel like the ultimate insurance plan, but pinning all of your health hopes on a one-a-day isn’t going to cut it–mainly because there’s one crucial detail about them a lot of us don’t realize. “When you swallow or chew a multivitamin, it is broken down in our digestive tract by enzymes and thus only partially absorbed and utilized by our body,” says Dr. Sherry Ross, OB/GYN and Women’s Health Expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. It’s been estimated that 8% to 60% of dietary supplements pass through the body unabsorbed and unused, Ross says. So much for slacking off on your diet.
In order to ensure you are not the one in 10 people who, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, are lacking in at least one nutritional deficiency, Ross advises eating a colorful plant-based diet low in saturated and trans-fats. She says the most common vitamin deficiency is vitamin B6, which is present in foods like sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, and fresh tuna and wild salmon.
“Food should be your primary source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. When whole foods are broken down or stored, the nutrients work together to promote optimal health in a way supplements cannot,” Ross says. “Vitamin supplements play an essential role to fill in the gaps and provide nutritional insurance for those nutrients missing from your diet.”
With all that said, there are circumstances in which a vitamin supplement is advisable. If you’re pregnant or have recently given birth, folic acid supplements are essential since additional requirements are needed and hard to get solely from our diet, Ross says. Also recommended during pregnancy: iron and vitamin C to help with its absorption.
Vitamin B12 is also difficult to digest in foods, particularly for folks over 50, so a supplement is often recommended, as is vitamin D, which Ross says is difficult to get from foods and the sun (75% of people are actually deficient in vitamin D).
But, before you self diagnose and spend a lot of money on supplements, Ross recommends visiting your doctor who can check your blood levels and advise you on which vitamins, if any, you should be taking. It’s important to remember that taking too much of an unneeded supplement like calcium, for example, can cause unhealthy and sometimes extremely dangerous side effects.
Bottom line: “Eating healthy foods and avoiding a commercially created, preservative-rich diet, is ideal for optimal health,” Ross says. “Whole foods are recognized, metabolized and utilized more easily and naturally in the body than supplements. Supplements do not offer the body the same nutritional advantages as whole foods.”