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Choosing a Vitamin and Mineral Supplement - Topic Overview

What is a vitamin and mineral supplement?

A vitamin and mineral supplement provides a variety of nutrients that are also found in food. These supplements are often called multivitamins. They come in the form of pills, chewable tablets, powders, and liquids.

A standard multivitamin usually contains:

  • Water-soluble vitamins. These vitamins pass in and out of the body easily. Most do not build up in the body's cells. Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and the B vitamins: thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, folic acid, and B12.
  • Fat-soluble vitamins. These vitamins are stored in the body's cells and do not pass out of the body as easily as water-soluble vitamins do. Fat-soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K.
  • Minerals. These include calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc.

Some multivitamins also contain other ingredients that aren't vitamins or minerals. These include substances such as the antioxidants lutein and lycopene.

Why take a supplement?

The best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need is by eating a wide variety of healthy foods. A supplement can't make up for unhealthy eating habits. But sometimes even people who have healthy eating habits find it hard to get all the fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods they need. A supplement can help fill in the gaps.

Certain people are more likely to need a supplement. They include:

  • People who eat a calorie-restricted diet, which does not provide enough vitamins and minerals.
  • Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
  • People who are sick, injured, or recovering from surgery or who have a long-term health problem.
  • Infants, especially to be sure they are getting adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D.
  • People who can't or don't eat a variety of foods, such as people who have food allergies or people who eat a vegetarian diet.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend fruits, vegetables, whole grains, milk and milk products, and seafood as part of a nutritious food plan. Many Americans do not eat enough of these foods that provide the important nutrients calcium and vitamin D, potassium, and other key vitamins and minerals.1

What about supplements that are labeled for certain people (such as women or seniors)?

Many supplements are advertised as being specially designed for men or for women or for certain age groups. A standard multivitamin is usually all that a healthy adult needs. But some people prefer to take a supplement that is made for their gender or age group.

Types of specialized supplements include:

  • Women's formulas. Women's supplements have extra iron. This is because women who are still having periods need more iron than men do. But after menopause, women's iron needs are the same as men's. Some women's formulas also contain extra calcium, since women are more likely than men to get osteoporosis.
  • Men's formulas. These are lower in iron, because men need less iron than women.
  • Senior formulas. These are made for older adults and usually have less iron and vitamin K and more vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
  • Prenatal formulas. These are made for women who are pregnant, are planning to get pregnant, or are breast-feeding. The supplements have extra folic acid and iron. Folic acid is especially important because it can help prevent certain birth defects, especially neural tube defects. Sometimes these supplements also have more calcium.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 25, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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