Vitamins: How effective are they?


Emily Baker

Jade Critchfield

About 58 percent of undergraduate students take dietary supplements, according to a study done by the Journal of American College Health.

However, nutritionists prefer that people get their vitamins through food first, said Emily Baker, nutrition and dietetics lecturer.

“We [nutritionists] always advocate a food-first approach,” Baker said. “A person would usually get their vitamins and minerals from food-based sources.”

Most people get all the daily vitamins and nutrients they need by eating a balanced diet.

Nutritionists prefer this approach because humans absorb more vitamins and nutrients eating food-based sources than taking a vitamin. For instance, when one drinks milk, one’s body absorbs calcium, protein, vitamin D and riboflavin, which helps break down carbohydrates, Baker said.

Nutritionists recommend vitamins over food when someone has a food allergy or dietary restriction. Vegetarians and vegans are groups that may need vitamin, such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc.

“If you are vegetarian, you’re increasing your risk for iron deficiency because the type of iron in the plant is much inferior than the type of iron in the animal product in terms of absorption,” said Angie Ha, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics. “So, even if you eat the same amount of iron [in plants], you’re actually absorbing less as a vegetarian.”

Other groups of people who may need to take vitamins are pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses, athletes and people following the keto or paleo diets.

If someone needs to take vitamins, he or she should double check the label before purchasing. Vitamins are treated as food instead of medicine by the FDA, meaning vitamins are not regularly checked, Baker said.

Baker suggests looking for a USP, or U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention seal, on the vitamin packaging because those vitamins meet FDA standards.

It’s also important to make sure the vitamin brand has a good reputation, and that the vitamins are taken in the proper dosage.

“For example, with calcium, you want to split your dose [supplement] into two because your body can handle only so much of the calcium for a time,” Ha said. “A calcium supplement can have up to 1,000 mg, so if you’re taking the pill at one time, your body can handle less than 500 mg for a time. You’re wasting the rest of them [the vitamins] excreting from the body.” 

Jade Critchfield covers health and fitness. Contact her at [email protected].