Making Sense of Vitamins and Minerals

About half of all Americans routinely take dietary supplements. The most common ones are multivitamin and multimineral supplements. Making Sense of Vitamins and Minerals: Choosing the foods and nutrients you need to stay healthy explains the evidence behind the benefits and safety profiles of various vitamins and minerals. It also includes the recommended minimum and maximum amounts you should consume, as well as good food sources of each.

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Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition

Eat real food. That’s the essence of today’s nutrition message. Our knowledge of nutrition has come full circle, back to eating food that is as close as possible to the way nature made it. Based on a solid foundation of current nutrition science, Harvard’s Special Health Report Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition describes how to eat for optimum health.

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About half of all Americans routinely take dietary supplements, the most common being multivitamin and multimineral supplements. Yet, as this report explains, there is no compelling evidence to support this practice. In general, studies of people who eat diets rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish show that they consume higher levels of vitamins and minerals from these foods and also have a lower risk of many diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancers. On the other hand, trials testing the effect of selected vitamins or minerals as pill supplements have mostly shown very little influence on health. The main exception may be fish oil supplements, for which some trials show a lower risk of heart disease and possibly vitamin D.

This report explains the different types of studies used to assess the benefits and safety profiles of various nutrients. It also includes the recommended minimum and maximum amounts of the vitamins and minerals you should consume, as well as good food sources of each. The special section—“Does your diet deliver the daily recommended dose?”—will help you determine whether you’re getting sufficient amounts of vitamins and minerals from your diet, and what to do if you’re not.

Prepared by the editors at Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Howard D. Sesso, ScD, MPH, Associate Epidemiologist, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive Medicine, Harvard Medical School. 53 pages. (2019)

  • Vitamins and minerals: The basics
    • Vitamins vs. minerals
    • Water-soluble vitamins
    • Fat-soluble vitamins
    • Major minerals
    • Trace minerals
    • Understanding antioxidants
  • Understanding the federal guidelines
    • Recommended Dietary Allowances
  • Making sense of scientific studies
  • Cast of characters: From vitamin A to zinc
    • Vitamin A and carotenoids
    • B vitamins
    • Vitamin C
    • Vitamin D
    • Vitamin E
    • Vitamin K
    • Calcium
    • Magnesium
    • Potassium
    • Selenium
    • Zinc
  • Beyond vitamins: Omega-3s, phytochemicals, and probiotics
  • SPECIAL BONUS SECTION: Does your diet deliver the daily recommended dose?
  • Getting too little
  • Getting too much
  • So, should you take supplements?
    • Potential pitfalls of supplement use
    • Advice on choosing a supplement
  • Resources
  • Glossary

Vitamins vs. minerals

What distinguishes a vitamin from a mineral? A vita­min, simply put, is an organic substance—one pro­duced by a plant or an animal—that is required in small amounts for human life. (The first syllable, vit-, comes from the Latin word for “life.”) With the excep­tion of vitamin D, vitamins cannot be synthesized in the body and must come from food. They are there­fore considered essential micronutrients.

A mineral is an inorganic element—one that comes originally from rocks, soil, or water (though it may enter your diet through a plant that has absorbed it from the environment, or an animal that has eaten such a plant). There are many minerals, but only cer­tain ones are necessary for human health.

Another difference is that vitamins have com­plex structures that can be broken down by heat, air, or acid. Minerals are simpler elements that hold on to their chemical structures. That means minerals can easily find their way into your body through the plants, fish, animals, and fluids you consume. It’s more difficult to shuttle vitamins from food into your body, because cooking, storage, and simple exposure to air can inactivate these more fragile compounds.

Despite their differences, vitamins and minerals often work together. For example, vitamin D enables your body to pluck calcium from food that is passing through your digestive tract, rather than harvesting it from your own bones. Vitamin C helps you absorb iron. However, the interplay of micronutrients isn’t always cooperative. For example, too much vitamin C can block your body’s ability to assimilate the essential mineral copper.

There are a couple other distinctions to be aware of. Vitamins are subdivided into two categories— water-soluble and fat-soluble—with implications for your diet. Minerals, too, are subdivided into major minerals and trace minerals, depending on how much you need of each. Many vitamins and some minerals are also classified as antioxidants.

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