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How to Shop The Vitamin Aisle, Based on Your Diet

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

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Wanting to buy vitamins and actually buying them are two different things entirely. Because while the former requires a simple decision to supplement your diet with a few extra nutrients, the latter asks you to navigate shelves upon shelves of vitamins and supplements. Questions about cost, quality and efficiency swarm as you attempt to figure out which nutrients you need and which supplements are the best way of getting them. Considering how absolutely daunting the task can get, it’s little wonder many of us resign ourselves to complacency and abandon all hope of buying vitamins and supplements at all.

The truth is, though, shopping the vitamin aisle doesn’t have to be intimidating — at least, it doesn’t have to be so bewildering that you give up hope before you even get started. Experts have made it a little easier to figure out which nutrients you may be lacking, based on your diet, routines, and behaviors. And we’ve taken the liberty of trying to make things even clearer and more approachable.

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First things first, find a brand that’s genuinely reputable. “One of the key causes of confusion is just the category [of supplementation] in general. What do I look for? How do I navigate it?” Dr. Susan Hazels Mitmesser, vice president of science and technology at Pharmavite (editorial note: Pharmavite is the parent company of Nature Made), tells ishonest. “Understanding and using a reputable brand is so critical…What do pharmacists and health care practitioners recommend?” Looking for vitamins and supplements that are deemed high-quality by experts in the field is a great place to start.

Then, consider where you are in life and what you might need right now. “We take a holistic approach to health. It’s not just one component — it’s exercise, sleep, nutrition, and also doing some self-reflection,” Dr. Mitmesser said at the #BlogHer20 Health panel Food as Fuel. “If you are taking an antibiotic, for example, [maybe] you need to counterbalance that by supplementing your diet for a little bit with a probiotic.” Think about which nutrients you consume plenty of, and which you might be lacking.

Vegetarian

Unfortunately, vegetarianism has been linked to a number of nutrient insufficiencies, including: vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, zinc, iron, protein and iodine.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function and DNA synthesis (so, the creation or replication of DNA molecules), according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH recommends that adult women consume at least 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 per day — that’s about the amount of vitamin B12 you’d find in a 3-ounce can of tuna or four hard-boiled eggs. (This recommended daily intake increases to 2.6 micrograms for pregnant women and 2.8 micrograms for lactating women.)

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The issue? Vitamin B12 is overwhelmingly found in animal products — with clams and beef liver being among the most efficient sources of the nutrient, according to the NIH. In fact, only one plant-based source even made the NIH’s list of vitamin B12-rich foods: fortified breakfast cereals.

Vegetarians may have more luck with vitamin B12 than vegans, as the nutrient is found in milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs. However, if you abstain from eating eggs or dairy products — and in some cases, if you don’t — you may want to talk to your primary care provider about taking a vitamin B12 supplement.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a vitamin that promotes calcium absorption, bone growth, proper cell growth and immune function, per the NIH. It also helps prevent osteoporosis and reduce inflammation. The NIH recommends that adult women consume at least 15 micrograms of vitamin D each day — that’s a little more than the amount you’d find in three ounces of swordfish or in four cups of fortified orange juice. (This recommended daily intake increases to 20 micrograms for women over the age of 70.)

Vitamin D is found in very few plant-based sources, making it a common insufficiency associated with vegetarian diets, according to the Mayo Clinic. Only two plant-based sources made the NIH’s recommended vitamin D sources list: fortified orange juice and fortified cereal. That said, the nutrient is also found in eggs and several (very specific) dairy products, so vegetarians may have less of a problem getting enough of the nutrients than vegans.

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Vitamin D insufficiencies are common not only among vegetarians, but also among those who don’t get adequate sun exposure and those who don’t eat enough fortified foods. For this reason, it may make sense for you to check in with your doctor to make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D — and to consider taking a supplement if you’re not.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids have functions in your heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune system and endocrine system, according to the NIH. They also make up some of your cell membranes and provide some of the calories your body uses as energy. The NIH recommends that women consume 1.1 grams of omega-3 fatty acids each day.

Though omega-3 fatty acids can be found in a range of foods, the Mayo Clinic notes that most diets that don’t include fish or eggs tend to be low in essential fatty acids. This is because omega-3 fatty acids aren’t very bioavailable in plant-based sources; though canola oil, soy oil, walnuts and soybeans are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, the process of converting those plant-based fatty acids into stuff your body can use isn’t very efficient (meaning you don’t reap all of the benefits of consumption).

If your diet is high enough in eggs, you may be off-setting this potential insufficiency. But if you don’t — and really, even if you do — it may be worth talking to your doctor about supplementing your diet with omega-3 fatty acids.

Calcium

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Calcium is a mineral that aids muscular, nerve and hormonal function, according to the NIH. Adequate calcium consumption also prevents bone loss and osteoporosis. The NIH recommends that women aged 19-50 consume 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day — this is more than double the amount of calcium found in an 8-ounce serving of yogurt and nearly three times the amount of calcium in a cup of fortified orange juice. (The recommended intake for pregnant and breastfeeding women in this age group is the same.) Women older than 51 should increase their intake to 1,200 milligrams a day.

Calcium is primarily found in dairy products. But other NIH-recommended sources include: certain kinds of fish, tofu made with calcium sulfate, leafy green vegetables and certain kinds of bread.

If you’re a vegetarian who eats dairy products, it is very possible that you’re consuming enough calcium. But if you don’t eat dairy, you may want to talk to your primary care provider to ensure you’re getting enough calcium in your diet. Though it’s possible to meet the NIH’s recommended daily intake from vegetables, bread and tofu alone, doing so can be challenging — and it might be worth considering a calcium supplement.

Zinc

Zinc is a mineral that’s involved in a number of cellular activities, according to the NIH. It contributes to immune function and wound healing, and it supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. The NIH recommends that women over the age of 19 consume 8 milligrams of zinc each day — that’s about the amount found in two 3-ounce beef patties. (This daily recommended intake jumps to 11 milligrams for pregnant women and 12 milligrams for lactating women.)

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Though zinc is primarily found in meats and seafoods, the NIH recommends a number of vegetarian-friendly sources of the mineral. These include: fortified cereals, some legumes, some nuts, some seeds and some dairy products. If your diet is rich enough in these foods, it’s possible that you’re getting enough zinc. Still, it may be worth talking to your doctor to ensure you are — and taking a supplement if you’re not.

Iron

Iron is a mineral that’s required for physical growth, neurological development, cellular function, and some hormonal processes, according to the NIH. The NIH recommends that women aged 19-50 consume 18 milligrams of iron each day — that’s a little more than double the amount of iron found in two cups of canned white beans. (This daily recommended intake jumps to 27 milligrams for pregnant women in the same age group, and drops to 9 milligrams for breastfeeding women in the same age group.) The NIH recommends that women above the age of 50 consume 8 milligrams of iron each day.

Iron is found in a number of plant-based sources. In fact, plant-based sources abound on the NIH’s recommended sources of iron list. However, because iron is less bioavailable in plant-based sources than it is in animal-based sources, the recommended iron intake for vegetarians is almost double what’s recommended for non-vegetarians. And the Mayo Clinic specifically recommends pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods (like strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage, and broccoli) to help your body better absorb the nutrient.

Consider talking to your doctor to ensure you’re getting adequate iron — and that you’re consuming enough vitamin C to help your body absorb that iron. If not, you might want to consider taking an iron or vitamin C supplement.

Iodine

Iodine is a trace element that aids thyroid function, according to the NIH. It also promotes proper skeletal and central nervous system growth and development in the womb and during infancy. The NIH recommends that women above the age of 19 consume 150 micrograms of iodine each day — that’s about twice the amount of iodine found in two cups of yogurt. (This daily recommended intake increases to 220 micrograms among pregnant women and 290 micrograms among breastfeeding women.)

Iodine is primarily found in fish and seafood, meaning it may be in low supply in a vegetarian diet. That said, one-fourth teaspoon of iodized salt per day can provide adequate iodine, according to the Mayo Clinic. And if you’re concerned about making sure you’re consuming enough iodine, you can always talk to your primary care provider about taking a supplement.

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