Spoonfuls of vitamins

23 May 2024

Understanding Vitamins and Supplements

There are so many different vitamins and mineral supplements available, it can feel overwhelming trying to decide what you should take. Here’s how to ensure you’re getting the right amounts of everything you need.

Vitamins and minerals are nutrients your body needs in small amounts to work properly and stay healthy. But there is a fine line between getting enough of these nutrients (which is healthy) and getting too much (which can end up harming you). 

Most people should get all the nutrients they need by having a varied and balanced diet, although some people may need to take extra supplements.

For example, instead of taking a vitamin C supplement, you can consume citrus fruits, strawberries and bell peppers. Leafy greens like spinach and kale are excellent sources of vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as calcium and iron. Nuts and seeds, particularly almonds and sunflower seeds, are rich in vitamin E and magnesium. For omega-3 fatty acids, fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel are superior natural sources.


Vitamins and minerals men and women should prioritise

Men and women have different physiological needs and this extends to their nutritional requirements.

For men, vitamins and minerals that support heart health, such as vitamin D, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids, should be a priority due to a generally higher risk of heart disease. Additionally, antioxidants like vitamins C and E, selenium and zinc can support prostate health. Men who engage in regular physical activity may also benefit from protein supplements and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to aid in muscle recovery.

Women on the other hand, often need to focus on iron due to menstruation and the risk of anaemia. Calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health, especially as women are at a higher risk of osteoporosis later in life. Folic acid is essential for women of childbearing age to prevent neural tube defects in the event of pregnancy. B vitamins can also be crucial, especially vitamin B6 and B12, to support energy metabolism and hormonal balance.


Vitamin and mineral deficiencies

Some people may need supplements to correct vitamin or mineral deficiencies and this includes:

  • Pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding;
  • People who smoke, drink alcohol in excess or use illegal drugs;
  • The elderly (especially those who are disabled or chronically ill);
  • Some vegetarians or vegans;
  • Women with heavy periods;
  • People with food allergies;
  • Those with malabsorption problems (such as diarrhoea, coeliac disease, cystic fibrosis or pancreatitis).


When not to take certain supplements

There are times when it's prudent to be cautious about supplement intake, with pregnancy being a prime example. For instance, high doses of vitamin A can cause birth defects and should be avoided, alongside some herbal supplements, such as St. John's Wort, which can interfere with other medications and potentially harm the foetus.

Other instances where caution is warranted include individuals taking prescription medications. Some supplements can interact with medications, either reducing their efficacy or enhancing their side effects. For example, vitamin K can affect blood thinners and calcium supplements may interfere with the absorption of certain antibiotics. Those with kidney disease must be careful with potassium and phosphorus supplements, as their kidneys may not be able to process these minerals effectively. 

Those with medical conditions should always consult their healthcare provider before taking supplements.