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Hint, they're not. This is what you should look out for instead.
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Americans spend about $35 billion -- yes, billion -- per year on supplements, including vitamins. These pills promise everything from better sleep to weight loss to improved overall nutrition, but are they really worth the money? Or should you spend that cash on fresh produce delivery? The FDA doesn't regulate dietary supplements in the same way it regulates prescription or over-the-counter drugs. That doesn't automatically make vitamins worthless, but it does mean it's best to do some research before popping the cap on a new multivitamin bottle.
Read on to learn more about what constitutes a vitamin, whether all vitamins are the same and if you should budget more money for vitamins.
What are vitamins?
Vitamins are nutrients that help your body grow, fight off infection, keep nerves healthy, get energy from food and complete other necessary functions. There are 13 essential vitamins, which include vitamins A, C, and E. The B vitamins include thiamin, riboflavin, and B12. You can get all the vitamins you need for your body by following a balanced diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. People can usually get the recommended amount of vitamin D by getting 10 to 30 minutes of sunshine each day.
If, for some reason, you can't get enough of a particular vitamin via diet, supplemental vitamins may help. But not all vitamin supplements are exactly the same. Everything from ingredients and targeted age groups may differ between brands.
Is a more expensive vitamin supplement bound to be better than a cheaper option? Not necessarily. What's far more important is making sure you're getting the correct dose and choosing only the vitamins that your body needs. According to Mayo Clinic, each vitamin and mineral has a recommended dietary allowance -- the recommended amount you should take daily depending on your age and gender. Exceeding the recommended amount won't benefit your body, and it could actually cause harm in certain situations. This is particularly true for fat-soluble vitamins that get stored in the body.
Most scientific research has not proven that multivitamins do a lot of good for the average body. It may be wiser to choose a specific vitamin that you know you're lacking. For instance, many people who spend a lot of time indoors will benefit from a vitamin D supplement. Look for a vitamin D pill with no more than 600 IU, the currently recommended RDA for people between the ages of one to 70. Older adults can take 800 IU. The price of the vitamin doesn't matter as long as you are getting the correct dosage.
What to consider when buying vitamins
When you're in search of a multivitamin or single vitamin supplement, you should always check the label. Don't worry about the price. Instead, aim to take the RDA of each vitamin and seek out options with more active ingredients. Inactive ingredients can't be totally avoided, as many of them contain crucial binding properties, but they don't offer any nutritional value.
The primary benefit to checking a vitamin level is to make sure you're not intaking more than you need. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble and your body will store excess supply in your liver -- which can cause harm. You should also consider gender when assessing the right dose of vitamins for you. For instance, women should consume 2,330 IU of vitamin A per day, while men can safely take up to 3,000 IU.
It's also important to check ingredients because the vitamins and fillers in your pill could be contraindicated for something you already take. Since the vitamin company won't list possible risks on the label, you'll want to talk to your doctor.
The FDA doesn't regulate the vitamin industry, but there are some third-party companies that test vitamins to make sure they don't include unexpected toxins or labels with misleading dosages. Look for a vitamin that's been reviewed by an organization such as US Pharmacopeia or NSF International, the former of which tests manufacturer samples up to six times a year and has established widely accepted standards for vitamins.
Some retailers may put near-expired vitamins toward the front of a shelf to try and sell them faster. That means checking expiration dates on your multivitamin is important. Expired vitamins aren't toxic, but they're not as effective. If you're relying on your vitamin to meet your vitamin D needs or treat a condition, the lacking efficacy could spell trouble. Throw out old vitamins and keep your current vitamins in a cool, dry location to keep them in good condition.
Do I need to take supplements?
Most people can get enough vitamins and minerals from a balanced diet. If you know you are lacking a particular vitamin in your diet, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement. Remember that multivitamins are supplements and not meal replacements. In other words, it's still wise to get most of your nutrients from whole foods when possible.
Are expensive vitamins better than cheap ones?
Not necessarily. The quality of vitamins is dependent on the amount of actual nutrients in each dose, and expensive vitamins may also contain fillers or undesirable material. Look for a vitamin that meets the recommended daily allowance and has been tested by a third-party organization. Many affordable vitamins will meet these standards.
Does the brand of vitamins make a difference?
Are all vitamins the same? No, but brand labels are less important than the quality of the vitamins' contents. Given that there is little scientific evidence to support the idea that multivitamins prevent major issues like cancer or heart disease, it's more important to make sure you're getting the right dosage of each vitamin than anything else.
Why are some vitamins more expensive?
The most expensive vitamins are not necessarily better for you. Simply put, some brands are able to convince people to pay more. Cheap vitamins with the proper RDA will provide the same benefits as more expensive vitamins.
How do you know if a vitamin is good quality?
Look for vitamins that are not expired and provide no more than the recommended daily allowance of each vitamin included. Good quality vitamins often feature more active than inactive ingredients, which means more vitamins and less filler.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.