It's a message you've probably heard before: Keep yourself healthy with the right mix of vitamins. But which ones, you wonder, and should I pop pills or get the nutrients through the food I eat?
The best thing to do is to keep up a balanced diet. But supplements can be a good way to fill in the gaps when they happen.
This group includes vitamin A -- retinol, beta carotene, and carotenoids --, vitamin C, and vitamin E. They appear to play a role in protecting you from tiny particles your body makes, called free radicals, that can tear cells apart.
Antioxidants may lower the risk of some health problems and slow aging. Some researchers also think they help boost the immune system, your body's defense against germs.
Beta-carotene. Your body changes it to vitamin A, a nutrient that helps eyesight, soft tissue, and skin. You'll find it in apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, guava, kale, papaya, peaches, pumpkins, red peppers, spinach, and tomatoes.
Vitamin C. You may also hear it called ascorbic acid. It heals wounds and helps your body make red blood cells. It also boosts levels of the brain chemical called noradrenaline, which makes you feel more alert and amps up your concentration.
Studies show that when you're under a lot of stress, or as you get older, your levels of ascorbic acid go down. You can get vitamin C from broccoli, grapefruit, kiwi, oranges, peppers, potatoes, strawberries, and tomatoes.
Vitamin E. It's also known as tocopherol and includes related compounds called tocotrienols. Your body needs it to keep cells healthy. It may slow signs of aging, too. But you raise your risk of bleeding if you take too much of it every day. You can get this nutrient in foods like margarine, corn oil, cod-liver oil, hazelnuts, peanut butter, safflower oil, sunflower seeds, and wheat germ.
There are a few types of these nutrients, and they're all good for your body. But three of them -- vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid -- are especially important.
Vitamin B6 is also known as pyridoxine. You need it to keep your brain working well and to help your body change food into energy, which is called metabolism. It can be toxic if you get too much of it at once, so your best bet is to eat foods that have this nutrient in it. Try fish, potatoes, chickpeas, avocadoes, bananas, beans, cereal, meats, oatmeal, and poultry.
Vitamin B12 is also important for metabolism, and it helps your body make red blood cells. You can get it from cheese, eggs, fish, meat, milk, and yogurt. Older adults, people with anemia, vegans, and vegetarians should work with a doctor to make sure they get enough of it.
Folate (folic acid). It helps build a healthy brain and spinal cord. It also makes DNA and RNA, the building blocks of cells, and prevents the changes in DNA that can lead to cancer. Adults and children need it to build normal red blood cells and prevent anemia. But it's especially important for pregnant women because it helps prevent birth defects like spina bifida.
Foods high in folate include spinach and leafy greens, asparagus, citrus fruits, melons, strawberries, fortified grains, legumes, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, eggs, and liver.
It may be called a vitamin, but it actually works as a hormone. It helps to move calcium and phosphorus -- important minerals for keeping bones strong -- into your bloodstream. When your body doesn't have enough vitamin D, it will take calcium and phosphorus from your bones. Over time, this makes them thin and leads to conditions like osteoporosis, which puts you at risk for fractures.
You can get vitamin D if you eat eggs and fish, especially salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Many middle-aged and older adults, though, might need to get what they need from "fortified" foods, which have the nutrient added by the manufacturer, or from supplements.
Because calcium and vitamin D are closely linked, many doctors recommend that older people, especially women who have been through menopause, take a supplement that has both nutrients.
It plays an important role in keeping bones strong and helping blood clot for older people. The best food sources include green leafy vegetables, soybean oil, broccoli, alfalfa, cooked spinach, and fish oil.
Foods vs. Supplements: Which Is Better?
Most dietitians say it's better to get key vitamins from foods without relying on supplements. But talk to your doctor to see what’s right for you. Follow his directions so you don't take more than you should.