With the proliferation of information surrounding vitamins these days, you might be wondering if you should be supplementing your diet with any. But you probably don’t need as many as you think.
“Most college students are at a very low risk of vitamin deficiency,” said Lingtak-Neander Chan, the vice chair of the UW department of pharmacy.
According to Chan, the common misconceptions about vitamins are that they make you healthier, they help you live longer, and that they prevent cancer. Vitamins are part of what keeps your body functioning properly, but they’re not wonder drugs. While there are populations of people who can benefit from taking vitamins, college students typically aren’t one of them.
Since we live in the Pacific Northwest, the one vitamin we should be taking is vitamin D, which is the vitamin your body makes when exposed to sunlight.
“Just sunlight alone is not enough,” Chan said. “We need to supplement it to maintain normal body functions.”
Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium in the gut which leads to healthy bones. A lack of vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis which causes bone loss.
The best foods to acquire vitamin D from are dairy products, such as milk and yogurt. Other sources include mushrooms and oily fish, like salmon and sardines.
Common vitamins many people take are omega-3 fatty acids, which can be acquired from fish oil and oils from plant seeds. They are thought to be beneficial for preventing many conditions, such as cataracts, cardiovascular diseases, and even depression, but Chan says that the data for these has been inconsistent.
Folic acid, or vitamin B-9, is another essential vitamin. It is important for keeping away anemia, which is a low red blood cell count. It is a crucial vitamin for all people, but especially for pregnant women.
“The good news about folic acid is that it’s fortified in our diet,” Chan said. “A lot of food has been fortified with folic acid. It is very unusual for us [on an American diet] to be deficient in folic acid.”
Folic acid can be found added in many manufactured food items such as cereal and bread, and naturally in other items such as leafy vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
Another important vitamin is known as thiamine, or vitamin B-1.
“Our body has a very small storage of thiamine,” Chan said. “If you don’t eat enough, you’ll develop thiamine deficiency very quickly. You’ll feel lousy.”
Other symptoms of thiamine deficiency are nausea, vomiting, numbness in fingers, and difficulty maintaining balance. These symptoms are the result of your cells not being able to metabolize properly.
“Without thiamine, oftentimes the cells have a more limited capacity for utilizing energy,” Chan said. “The cell runs on [glucose] to maintain normal functioning … [without thiamine] it will be unable to process fuel.”
Fortunately, thiamine is abundant in many of the foods we eat, such as grains, meats, and plants. As long as a healthy diet is maintained, then you shouldn’t be short on thiamine.
The same goes for many other vitamins.
“A healthy diet gives you the best sources of vitamins,” Chan said.
However, if you’re in need of more vitamins in your diet, you should be taking supplements. Just be careful about what you buy.
“There is a downside to taking the supplements,” Chan said. “When the manufacturer puts the products together, they do not have to submit the data to the Food and Drug Administration. There is a risk of contamination. They may not contain what the label says.”
This means that the vitamin industry isn’t regulated like other drugs. Fortunately, there are independent non-governmental agencies that will test the different brands of supplements. Two of them are Consumer Reports and the United States Pharmacopeia (USP).
“These products that have been certified by Consumer Reports or USP tend to have high quality,” Chan said. “You’re more likely to trust that these products actually contain what they say on the label.”
But for us Huskies, it is better to just practice healthy habits.
“My advice for college students [is to] have a balanced diet, [and] be active,” Chan said. “That way you’ll probably do very well without the need of supplementation.”
Except for vitamin D. We should be taking that one.
Reach writer Cristen Jansson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @cristenjansson