A guide to vitamins and supplements

“I eat well, so why do I need to take vitamin supplements?” “I am bombarded by so much conflicting information about supplements, how do I know which vitamins I need to take?” These are some of the questions and concerns I hear almost daily from my patients.

Yet we love our vitamins. About half the adults in this country take them daily. If you’re already taking vitamin supplements or are sitting on the fence in your decision to do so, perhaps this information may help.

First, remember that the best sources of vitamins and minerals are whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. But you may not be ingesting your minimum of six servings of vegetables daily. If not, you could benefit from multivitamin/mineral supplementation. In addition, you could benefit from a multivitamin/mineral if you eat less than 1,600 calories a day, are pregnant, thinking of becoming pregnant or lactating, elderly, or are an adult or child taking medications. People with chronic illness and gastrointestinal problems and those who have poor diets also will benefit from supplements.

If you decide that you would like to start taking a multivitamin be aware that while the food and drug administration regulates vitamins as part of the nutritional supplement industry, it doesn’t test them before they’re put on the shelf. The FDA places the responsibility on the manufacturer to ensure that its dietary supplements are safe before they’re marketed. ConsumerLab.com tests hundreds of vitamins each year and finds that many multivitamins have a quality problem: the pills might have more or less of a stated ingredient or they might not dissolve properly.

I recommend that patients look for certain characteristics when buying a multivitamin. Powder or vegetable capsules dissolve and absorb more quickly in the gastrointestinal tract than tablets. Certification symbols, such as USP, NSF or GMP are not a perfect screening, but they do indicate that several nonprofit organizations check supplements for purity. You can also contact the vitamin company and ask if they perform independent third party assays on their products regularly. Have a report mailed to you.

If you aren’t sure you need to take supplements other than a multivitamin/mineral, it may be helpful to meet with a nutritional expert. Depending on your health status, nutritional intake and stress levels an individual plan can be addressed.

Vitamins, and a multivitamin/mineral in particular, can provide some assurance of filling in the gaps in an over-stressed and “fast food” nation. Be an educated consumer and stay healthy.

Dr. Lisa Crowley is sole proprietor of Alternative Healthcare in Southold.