If you eat a well balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, protein, fiber, and certain fortified foods like milk and bread, you are probably getting enough of everything and don’t need to worry.
But let’s be honest, shall we? It’s not that easy to eat healthfully. Who among us hasn’t had a few all night junk food and booze benders, or sustained themselves through an entire holiday season on fancy chocolates and egg nog?
If you’ve ever had to stop and think about how long ago you last ate fruit, you’re going to want to supplement with a vitamin. That’s cool, we got you. Following are the most important nutrients to make sure you get enough of.
1. Beta Carotene
Beta carotene is an antioxidant that converts to vitamin A in the body. You need vitamin A to maintain a robust immune system, healthy eyes, and clear skin. Get your fill through a diet rich in things like sweet potatoes, green peppers, and carrots (though this will not improve your night vision, contrary to popular belief).
One note of caution, though – taking in too much beta carotene in the form of supplements could up your risk of certain cancers and lung disease, especially if you’re a smoker. There is no set RDA for beta-carotene, only for vitamin A (3,000 IU for men and 2,300 IU for women). That can make it tough to select the right strength supplement.
Our bodies use calcium to maintain strong bone density and prevent osteoporosis. If you are a mature person of a certain age, you are probably seeing a lot of spam emails urging you to get more calcium lest your bones shatter to dust. The best sources are dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt.
If you hate dairy, you can still get your RDA from foods like kale and canned sardines. Better? No, we didn’t think so. Go ahead and take a calcium supplement, just tread lightly if you are prone to kidney stones or happen to be a woman over 70. Stick to less than 500 mg per dose and take your calcium with vitamin D to improve absorption.
3. Vitamin D
Speaking of vitamin D, when was the last time you went outside? This vitamin, critical to bone health, is synthesized in the body after a period of sun exposure, and it doesn’t take too terribly long. But doctors are now saying that many of us are deficient because we spend so much time inside – at work, at home, or locked in the basement playing Fortnite.
You can get vitamin D in your diet from fatty fish or fortified milk if you don’t want to go outside, but don’t hesitate to choose a supplement instead. You may want to ask your doctor to check your levels in any case.
4. Folic Acid
Folic acid, otherwise known as folate, is a B vitamin that’s a big deal for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. It helps prevent neural tube defects in a growing fetus, for one, but even non-pregnant people do well to get enough of it. Folic acid is thought to reduce your risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and anemia, plus it keeps your brain sharper as you age.
You can get your folate through foods like fortified breakfast cereal, citrus fruit, dark green vegetables, legumes, pasta, and bread. There’s no reason not to rely on a supplement if you can’t get your hands on those foods regularly. Aim for 400 micrograms per day unless you’re pregnant or nursing; in that case, bump it up to 600 micrograms.
Organ meat, anyone? It is the best food to eat for iron, and you need enough iron for your red blood cells to function properly. When they go haywire, it often results in anemia. But don’t worry, you can also get a lot of iron into your diet through lean meats, leafy green veggies, seafood, and nuts.
You probably don’t need a daily supplement unless you are truly anemic, pregnant, or eat nothing but candy. Women who are menstruating might also feel better with a supplement. The RDA for iron varies greatly based on your age and health status, so it doesn’t hurt to ask your doc what he or she recommends for you.
Potassium is thought to lower your risk of heart disease or stroke, and it works in concert with sodium to regulate the ideal fluid balance in your body. Unfortunately, many people get way too much sodium and not nearly enough potassium in their daily diets. Eat more bananas, leafy greens, raisins, and oranges to achieve a better ratio.
Aim for 4,700 mg of potassium per day unless you’ve got a baby on board. In that case you need to up the dose to 5,100 mg. Supplements can be very useful if you have trouble reaching that amount or take potassium-depleting diuretic medications for a heart condition. It’s hard to overdose, but too much potassium is not great for older people and those with kidney disease.
7. Vitamin K
Okay, so vitamin K doesn’t do a whole lot, but what it does do is pretty important. Critical in the process by which blood clots, a deficiency could lead to excessive bleeding after an injury. If you are in a career that uses a lot of knives, love extreme sports, or have brothers, it’s important to get enough vitamin K.
In your diet, you can get it through leafy greens, meat, eggs, and cheese. Deficiencies are rare in adults, but quite common in newborns, which is why infants are typically given a shot of vitamin K in the hospital. A supplement is advisable if you’re not getting a daily amount of 120 mcg for men and 90 mcg for women.
8. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is good stuff, and if you don’t get any, you are likely to go mad with scurvy. It helps prevent immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, eye disease, prenatal health problems, and even wrinkly skin. What it does not do is prevent the common cold, but we can’t have everything, now can we?
Found in abundance in citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, and green peppers, it’s not difficult to get your RDA (90 mg for women and 75 mg for men) through food. But there is also no harm in taking a supplement if you find you’re falling short. Though you may only reduce the length of your cold by one day, at least you will come out the other end with radiant skin and clear eyes.
9. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a critical antioxidant that protects your cells from free radicals, both inside and out. That’s why many skin products are fortified with the stuff. E also strengthens your immune system and may help slow macular degeneration if you have it. Find vitamin E in foods like peanuts, fruits, eggs, and leafy green veggies (sensing a pattern here).
If you want to get your RDA of vitamin E with a supplement, don’t take more than 33 IU of the synthetic stuff. Too much of it can increase the risk of bleeding in the brain. If you’re worried, remember that slathering it on your skin is also an option.
Research on multivitamins has delivered mixed results, and there’s really no strong evidence that a daily multivitamin reduces the risk of things like diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. However, if your diet is all over the place or you are too busy to pay much attention to what or when you eat, a multivitamin can be good to smooth out any deficits.
If you go this route, choose a vitamin that doesn’t provide too much of anything, unless the excess can be easily excreted in urine (vitamin C, for example). And steer clear of extra individual supplements except as recommended by your doctor. Daily multivitamins are theoretically designed to be nutritionally complete.
Bottom line: you really should be eating your leafy greens, but we won’t judge if you never grew out of your childhood dislike of vegetables.
With a little research, most of your nutritional needs can be met with a balanced diet of foods you can tolerate, but it’s not uncommon to become deficient in something for one reason or another.