Have you ever heard the saying, “You are what you eat?” Well, it couldn’t be more accurate when it comes to getting the right vitamins and nutrients for your body.
Vitamins are essential for maintaining good health and preventing diseases and play a crucial role in healthy body functions. Yet many of us don’t get enough of them in our diets. In some instances, particularly as we get older, we may also need a little extra boost.
Whether you’re a baby, teen or older adult, your nutrient needs change as you age. Some are important for growth and development, while others are essential for maintaining strong bones and a healthy immune system.
Read on to learn more about vitamin supplementation and what essential vitamins and minerals your body might need at different times – from infancy onward.
Supplements: Do you really need them?
Over half of Americans take one or more dietary supplements daily or occasionally. They take these supplements to ensure they get enough nutrients and maintain or improve their health, but not everyone needs to take them.
“There are certainly those who can benefit from supplements, but you really get a lot more bang for your buck by eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables,” said Alexandra Lessem, a family nurse practitioner with Banner Health. “Also, many studies have shown that vitamins found in food react differently (and better) in the body than those taken as pills, powders or liquids.”
In addition, some vitamin and mineral supplements may have side effects or cause problems if you have certain health conditions. They are also not regulated like prescription drugs.
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements as foods, not as drugs,” Lessem said. “Supplements may claim certain health benefits but can’t claim to treat, cure or prevent disease.”
This is why checking with your health care provider before starting or stopping vitamins is a good idea.
Vitamins you need at every age
In a perfect world, you’d get all your vitamins and minerals from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fortified foods. Realistically, people may have vitamin deficiencies and there are situations where an extra boost may be recommended.
Here’s a quick guide on what vitamins you may need at different stages of life.
Breastfed babies: Vitamin D and iron
Breast milk and formula contain nearly all the nutrients your baby needs for the first months of life, but some infants may need vitamins like D and iron to fill in the gaps.
Babies who drink at least 32 ounces of formula daily don’t need supplementation if it is fortified with vitamin D and iron. However, breastfed or partially breastfed babies might not get enough of these crucial nutrients.
“Although breast milk is called ‘the perfect food,’ it does not contain vitamin D, which is needed to support the baby’s brain and bone development,” Lessem said. “Typically, 400 IU (international units) per day is recommended and can be stopped when the baby starts eating a wide variety of foods (about 12 months) or switches to formula.”
Tween and teens years: Vitamin D and calcium
Children between the ages of 9 and 17 are growing and developing, so they need plenty of calcium and vitamin D. Getting adequate amounts of calcium helps keep their bones strong and prevents osteoporosis in later years.
Milk and other dairy products are fortified with vitamin D, but many children don’t drink enough to get what they need from foods alone.
“It’s always best to get these nutrients from a healthful, well-rounded diet, but there are certain circumstances, whether diet or medical condition, whether supplementation may be necessary,” Lessem said. “Tweens and teens should get 600 IU of vitamin D and 1000 mg of calcium from diet and supplementation.”
In your 20s and 30s: Folic acid, iron and B12
In your 20s and 30s, you will still want to keep up with calcium and vitamin D. However, depending on your life stage or diet, you may need other vitamins and minerals.
Life stages or diets may include:
- Pregnancy and nursing: You should take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid (also known as folate) and iron three months before you get pregnant and continue until you are finished breastfeeding. Folate is a natural form of vitamin B9, and folic acid is synthetic. It reduces the risk of neural tube birth defects (such as spina bifida and anencephaly), and iron helps with the red blood cell delivery of oxygen to the baby.
- Menstruating: Adequate iron is needed for energy and metabolism. Menstrual periods can sometimes deplete your iron stores.
- Vegan or vegetarian diet: If you are on a plant-based diet, you may need extra B12 if you don’t eat animal products that are rich in it.
In your 40s and 50s: Omega-3 fatty acids
Still topping the list in your 40s and 50s are vitamin D and calcium. Low vitamin D levels are linked to various health problems – from cancer and autoimmune conditions to type 2 diabetes and obesity. Your risk for many of these diseases tends to increase as you age.
Your calcium intake is still important for bone health, especially for women.
“Women are at greater risk for brittle-bone disease osteoporosis than men and may need to take additional measures,” Lessem said. “Women need about 600 to 800 IUs of vitamin D and 1000 to 1200 mg of calcium total (from food and supplements) daily depending on age and other risk factors for osteoporosis.”
Aging can cause significant changes to your heart and blood vessels, putting you at greater risk for heart disease. Taking omega-3s (fish oil) can help reduce the risk and maintain good heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids can also help with joint health.
Your 60s+: Vitamin B12 and multivitamins
In your 60s, keeping up with your calcium and vitamin D is still important.
If you don’t get enough calcium from dark green leafy vegetables and other calcium-rich foods – and many women over 50 and men over 70 often don’t – your body sources it from your bones, weakening them. This can lead to fractures and falls in older adults.
Like calcium, vitamin D is crucial to bone health. It also supports the immune and nervous systems and may benefit your heart.
As you age, it can get harder for your body to absorb vitamin B12. This can put you at greater risk for anemia and memory loss.
“It is especially important to monitor and supplement B12 in people who have been on certain medications, such as metformin or a proton pump inhibitor (PPI), for a prolonged period because these medications can decrease B12 absorption from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract,” Lessem said.
In many cases, a multivitamin supplement formulated for people over age 50 can also help you meet your nutritional needs that you are not getting from foods alone.
Eating a well-balanced and healthy diet is the key to good health. However, if you think you may be deficient in a vitamin or nutrient, talk to your health care provider before starting any supplement. Share with them products of interest and decide together what might work best for you.