You don’t need most vitamins in large amounts, but they’re essential for healthy functioning. Vitamins are components that help your body carry out essential chemical reactions in the human body. In fact, there are 13 essential vitamins: vitamin A, the B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K. Some vitamins, like vitamin A, C, and E, are antioxidant vitamins that help protect cells against oxidative damage. Others, like the B-complex vitamins are important for energy production. Then there’s vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin that you need for bone health and for a healthy immune system.
Most people can get the vitamins they need by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. However, people who eat a restricted diet may need certain vitamins in supplement form to avoid a deficiency. For example, vegans require vitamin B12 since meat and dairy are the most reliable sources. People with certain bowel diseases, like inflammatory bowel disease, have problems absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, like A, D, E, and K and may need to get these vitamins from a supplement. However, the average person who makes healthy choices can get the vitamins they need through diet, but this assumes you eat a healthy, varied diet and consume enough calories.
In fact, there are some ways you should avoid getting your vitamins. Let’s look at some of these.
Vitamin water, sold at many grocery stores in the bottled water section, may sound like a good idea, but is it? To make vitamin water, manufacturers add vitamins and minerals, artificial colors, additives, and sugar, to water. Then they encourage you to buy it so you can boost your vitamin and mineral intake. What’s wrong with that?
For one, vitamin water may contain lots of sugar. The amount varies from 28 grams to 32 grams of the sweet stuff. You can also buy vitamin water with artificial sweeteners but studies suggest these sweeteners may disrupt the gut microbiome, the good bacteria that live in your gut and help maintain digestive and immune balance. Plus, the quantity of vitamins in vitamin water varies with the brand. When you drink some vitamin water, you may get more of some vitamins than you need. For example, most vitamin water contains vitamin B12 and a recent study found that people in the highest quarter of blood vitamin B12 had twice the risk of dying early. Plus, some research links higher quantities of vitamin B12 with a greater risk of lung cancer.
Vitamin water rarely contains all of the vitamins your body needs. The vitamins in commercial vitamin water usually contains B-vitamins and vitamin C. Most contain potassium too. But why spend your money on liquid vitamins? Instead, drink purified water and get your vitamins and minerals from eating healthy, whole foods.
High-Dose Vitamin Supplements
Too often, people have the mentality that more is better, but that’s not the case with vitamins. Studies show that taking large doses of some vitamins may be harmful. For example, one study found a higher incidence of lung cancer in smokers who took beta-carotene and vitamin E in supplement form.
At high doses, vitamins can have unexpected side effects. Vitamin C can cause diarrhea and increase the risk of kidney stones. Some vitamins can be toxic if the level builds up too high. That’s true of vitamins A, E, and D. These are fat-soluble vitamins that you can’t flush out in your urine. Instead, you store them in tissues in your body. For example, you store vitamin inside fat cells. Unless you eat a restricted diet and can’t get enough of a particular vitamin through diet, food is your best source. It’s harder to consume too much of a vitamin through diet alone. However, there are exceptions. At one time, the eskimos ate polar bear liver, but some died from an overdose of vitamin A, as polar bear liver contains high levels of vitamin A. Too much vitamin A can cause bone damage, liver toxicity, joint pain, vomiting, and even death. In addition, studies link high levels of vitamin A with an increased risk of hip fracture in women.
Another shortfall of supplements is taking an isolated vitamin or mineral can interfere with the absorption of something else. For example, taking zinc interferes with copper absorption. That’s why zinc supplements often contain copper for balance. Other minerals compete for the same receptors such as calcium and magnesium.
Vitamin Fortified Foods
The processing of foods destroys some of its nutrients. After processing, manufacturers add synthetic vitamins to some packaged products including white bread, breakfast cereal, orange juice, and milk. The problem is some packaged foods aren’t that healthy. For example, breakfast cereal contains refined carbohydrates and lots of added sugar. The health impact of the high-glycemic carbs might negate the added vitamins you get from these foods. In addition, these foods often contain added sugar, salt, additives, and fillers that aren’t always a healthy choice.
The Bottom Line
Unless you eat a restrictive diet, take certain medications, or have a health problem, you can get your vitamins by eating a nutrient-dense diet. An exception would be vitamin D since the main source is exposure to the sun rather than food. Vegans also need vitamin B12 as animal-based foods are the main source. Another time when you need supplements, folate and iron, is during pregnancy. But otherwise, think of food as your source of vitamins and minerals.
Choose your food wisely though! A diet of ultra-processed food and refined carbs rarely offer a balanced array of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Skip the trendy vitamin water though. It’s often high in sugar or artificial sweeteners and may not have the same benefits as vitamins from food where you get the synergy of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. It’s best to get vitamins from whole foods rather than isolated components and eating a meal is more satisfying than drinking artificial vitamin water!
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