Beware of a common mistake – eating badly and using vitamin and mineral supplements to compensate! The best way to get vitamins and minerals for optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to eat a wide variety of foods.
- Fortified food, eg, milk and yoghurt with extra calcium, breakfast cereals with extra iron, can help provide vitamin and mineral supplements with the added benefit of eating nutrient rich foods.
- The only supplements recommended for all pregnant women are folic acid and iodine.
- Using vitamin and mineral supplements will not give you extra energy.
- The money spent on buying vitamin and minerals supplements might be better spent on good food.
(Video from the Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institute of Health, USA)
Eat a wide variety of foods
The best way to get vitamins and minerals for optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to eat a wide variety of foods. Many of us are worried we don’t get enough vitamins and minerals, so we buy supplements – especially in winter when we stock up on vitamin C.
However, if you eat a variety of foods and also take vitamin or mineral supplements or fortified foods, like some breakfast cereals, in your diet, you could be getting much more than you need for good health. Remember, eating well (including all the recommended food groups each day) ensures you get the best possible spread of nutrients.
Some vitamin and mineral supplements, however, might be very useful for some people:
- Iron – iron deficiency is common in teenage females and women during childbearing years. Iron supplements may be needed to avoid or treat iron deficiency especially if they don’t eat much meat, fish or chicken.
- Folic acid – for adolescent females and women during childbearing years if a pregnancy is planned.
- Vitamin B12 – for older people and people who are vegan (do not eat any food of animal origin).
- Vitamin D – for older people, people with darker skins and people who don’t go outside much or people that wear clothing that covers most of the body.
Folic acid & pregnancy
Folic acid is a vitamin needed for the formation of blood cells and new tissue. During pregnancy, a woman's need for folic acid is higher. Lack of folic acid has been linked with birth defects, such as spina bifida. The risk of having a child with these birth defects is low and can be reduced by taking a folic acid tablet - starting before you get pregnant.
Take a folic acid tablet daily
Take a folic acid tablet (0.8mg) daily for 4 weeks before you might become pregnant through to 12 weeks after actually becoming pregnant. If you find out you are pregnant and haven’t been taking a folic acid tablet, start taking tablets straight away. This tablet is available from pharmacies. Make sure to ask your pharmacist or LMC which folic acid tablet is best for you. You should also choose foods naturally high in folate or fortified with folic acid – Read more about folic acid here.
(Source: Eating for Healthy Pregnant Women Ministry of Health, 2020)
Concerns about vitamin & mineral supplements
Many vitamin or mineral supplements taken as medication are simply excreted in urine. The good thing is that they do little harm, on the other hand there is no evidence they will do much good. Sometimes, however, intakes of supplements can be excessive and place people at risk of adverse effects. This generally only occurs from high dose vitamin and mineral supplement pills or when people exceed the recommended dosage.
Take note of safe upper levels
The Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand include tables that give safe ‘upper levels of intake’ for vitamins and minerals. If you choose to take vitamin and mineral supplement pills, check the dose against the table and make sure you are not exceeding it. Remember to take into account the vitamins and minerals you're getting from the food you're eating as well.
|Nutrient||Upper level intake: 14-18 years (including pregnancy & breastfeeding)||Upper level intake: adult males||Upper level intake: adult females (including pregnancy & breastfeeding)|
|Vitamin A as retinol||2800µg||3000µg||3000µg|
|Pyridoxine (vitamin B6)||40mg||50mg||50mg|
|Vitamin E (alpha TE)||250mg||300mg||300mg|
|Phosphorus||4000mg||19-70 years 4000mg
>70 years 3000mg
|19-70 years 4000mg
>70 years 3000mg
(Information supplied by Auckland Dietetics Service)
Take care with calcium supplements
At menopause women will experience a decline in calcium absorption and/or an increase in calcium excretion – putting them at increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture. The Nutritional Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand 1997 says in postmenopausal women, a high calcium intake will slow the rate of bone loss and may reduce the risk of fracture.
However, it is not proven that getting your calcium from supplements will have this effect, and recent studies have begun to show there may be an upward trend in heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems in postmenopausal women and older men taking calcium supplements.
We need calcium for healthy bones and teeth, but it may be safest to get yours from what you eat and drink, rather than from taking a supplement. Calcium supplementation remains an area of controversy, so it is recommended to discuss possible supplementation, and dosage, with your doctor.
Read more about calcium here.