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Vitamins 101: Learn the Essentials

Though everyone older than 18 is lumped into a single category of adulthood, being 20 is quite different from being 70. People of different ages and different stages of life have different vitamin needs too.

“Most people aren’t aware that your body needs different nutrients at different times during adulthood,” says Sohrab Mobarhan, MD, a gastroenterologist at Rush University Medical Center who studies the effects of nutrition on disease.

No matter what stage you’re in, vitamins are essential to every process in your body. For adults, recommended levels of each vary by age and sex. Your doctor can help you determine the right amount for you.

Some special vitamin needs at varied times include the following:

While pregnant or breastfeeding: Work with a doctor before, during and after pregnancy to ensure mom and baby are getting the right mix of all nutrients, including vitamins, Mobarhan says.

Women need extra folates very early in pregnancy to prevent birth defects, such as spina bifida, and while breastfeeding to replenish their own store of folic acid. To fuel the body and help their babies grow, pregnant women also need extra of vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B6, B12, pantothenic acid and niacin. Breastfeeding moms need those plus extra biotin and vitamin E too.

Most of these extra vitamins are easily obtained from food or a prenatal multivitamin, which most women need to take during pregnancy.

After age 50: At this time, the body needs more of vitamins D and B6. Also, because aging affects the amount of stomach acid the body produces, and the ability to extract vitamin B12 from meat, the over-50 crowd should consume vitamin B12 in its “crystalline” form — as a supplement or in fortified foods.

After age 70: Try to get even more vitamin D than you did after age 50. Many foods are fortified with vitamin D, and the body makes its own when sunshine hits the skin. Bask in the sun for six or seven minutes every day during the spring and summer before putting on sunscreen, Mobarhan suggests. Such a short exposure won’t raise your risk of skin cancer.

Vitamin dos and don’ts

Ideally, most vitamins should come from a healthy, varied and balanced diet, Mobarhan says. He encourages people to eat their five servings of fruits and vegetables each day — especially vegetables, which are full of nutritional surprises. For example, a half-cup of red bell pepper contains twice as much vitamin C as an orange, and two medium carrots have more vitamin A than most adults need in a day.

Too many adults fill their daily caloric needs with junk food and soft drinks, which lack nutrients, Mobarhan says. Alcohol also significantly depletes vitamins in the body.

For most adults, daily multivitamins are an inexpensive insurance policy, Mobarhan says. Many come formulated for age and sex to make it even easier for you to get the right nutrients. However, more vitamins aren’t better.

“Taking mega doses of vitamins or large doses of a single vitamin is dangerous,” he says. “In some cases, very dangerous.” Too much vitamin A, for example, can lead to headaches, birth defects, bone and joint pain, and other serious problems.

To get the vitamins you need, think food first. “Put some energy into changing how and what you eat,” Mobarhan says. “One of the greatest pleasures in life is eating healthy, fresh food, that is prepared well.”

For more information on particular vitamins, explore the Table of Essential Vitamins.


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