Beginner’s Guide to Vitamins & Supplements

Beginner's Guide to Vitamins & Supplements

by Liz Lotts


Being concerned about your health is normal – especially in the middle of a pandemic. But in addition to eating right and exercising regularly, you might be wondering: what vitamins and supplements should I take? Though the supplement market is saturated with options, there’s no need to be overwhelmed. We’ve compiled a list of the best supplements for beginners, plus tips to help you customize your daily regimen.

The 11 Best Supplements for Beginners

Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill. Supplements are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. They can, however, support your health in a number of ways. The key is honing in on the ones that offer the biggest bang for your buck. Here are the best supplements for beginners to consider:

1. Multi-Vitamin

It’s no surprise that a multi-vitamin would be at the top of the list for those starting a supplement routine. After all, multi-vitamins typically provide a range of essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients all in one.

Who benefits most?
Anyone with nutritional gaps in their diet – unfortunately, that would be most of us – can benefit from a multi-vitamin. If you have specific needs (over 50, pregnant, post-partum, etc.), you’ll benefit most from a multi-vitamin that’s formulated to fulfill those nutritional needs.

How to supplement:
As mentioned above, be on the lookout for targeted multi-vitamins for your gender, age group, condition or health goal. Pay close attention to the form, serving amount and size of the pill. The key to supplementing correctly is consistency – if your multi-vitamin requires 6 daily servings or comes in a pill that’s tough to swallow, you’re less likely to comply! Also, note that multi-vitamin formulas made from whole-food sources are typically easier on the tummy.

2. Calcium

Everyone knows calcium is the major nutrient involved in bone formation. However, it’s also a key player in blood pressure regulation, nerve responses, muscle contraction and blood clotting. For all these reasons, calcium must be constantly replenished through diet and/or supplements.

Who benefits most?
Getting adequate calcium is especially important for growing teenagers and older adults, as they tend to be at the highest risk for calcium deficiency. As noted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “a calcium deficiency may result in weakened bones, fractures and even abnormal heart rhythms.” In fact, a 2005-2010 study found that approximately 44% of adults ages 50 and older had low bone mass. It has also been shown that women are much more likely to be affected by osteoporosis and low bone mass than men.

How to supplement:
Calcium is formulated in almost every multi-vitamin or multi-mineral supplement. It’s also commonly found in prenatal vitamins. Supplements provide one of two main types of calcium: calcium carbonate or calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate tends to be the preferred option, because it provides more elemental calcium. However, it can also cause stomach distress, especially if taken without food. Calcium citrate is easier on the tummy, but you may need a higher potency to match the benefits of calcium carbonate.

3. Omega-3 essential fatty acids

As their name implies, essential fatty acids (EFAs) are necessary for a healthy body and must be obtained through dietary means. Omega-3 fatty acids are the most important EFAs, because they are often consumed the least. Western diets are naturally high in omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, which are not as beneficial as their omega-3 counterparts.

The most studied omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Several studies have proven that these omega-3s provide cardioprotective properties, positive cognitive health effects in older adults and mood support.

Who benefits most?
If your diet is lacking in fatty fish – the primary food source of EFAs – an omega-3 supplement can fill in the gaps.

How to supplement:
Since EPA and DHA are the two most well-studied omega-3 fatty acids, be sure your supplement includes both of these essential nutrients – and in sufficient amounts. More importantly, take note of the quality. Your fish oil should be purified and distilled to be free of mercury, PCBs and other environmental toxins.

4. Fiber

A recent analysis of 185 prospective studies and 58 clinical trials suggests a 15 to 30% decrease in cardiovascular-related mortality when comparing the highest fiber eaters with the lowest consumers. The same analysis found a significant reduction in all-cause-related deaths due to an increase in fiber consumption. Risk reduction was greatest when daily dietary fiber was between 25 and 29 grams. The problem is Americans get only 10 to 15 grams per day, on average.

Who benefits most?
Considering the major health benefits of fiber, everyone should be tracking their intake. Anyone who falls short of the recommended 25 to 33 grams of fiber per day, should think about changing their diet or supplement routine.

How to supplement:
Too much fiber too soon can cause gas and bloating. It’s best to ease into fiber supplementation. Start with a small potency and gradually build up your tolerance. The most common supplement choices are fiber capsules and powders.

5. Iron

Iron is an essential component of numerous proteins and enzymes. One of its biggest roles is in hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein of red blood cells. It’s also used to make myoglobin, the protein found in muscles. As a result, iron is involved in numerous biological functions, namely oxygen transport, energy production, DNA synthesis and cell growth.

Lack of this important mineral can lead to iron deficiency anemia. Notable symptoms of anemia include extreme fatigue, weakness, headaches, cold extremities and paleness.

Who benefits most?
Iron deficiency occurs most often in children and women of child-bearing age. These are significant growth phases, when DNA synthesis, cell growth and energy production are highly active. That’s why adequate iron levels are so imperative for most women and children.

How to supplement:
The U.S. National Library of Medicine recommends avoiding most foods and drinks when taking an iron supplement. Milk, calcium and antacids, especially, can affect iron absorption. On the other hand, vitamin C is known to promote iron absorption. Therefore, it might be beneficial to pair your iron supplement with vitamin C or a vitamin-C-rich beverage, such as orange juice.

6. Magnesium

Magnesium is involved in more than 300 metabolic reactions. As you might know, magnesium is one of the electrolyte minerals that helps maintain blood pH, muscle contraction and a host of other functions. One analysis from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) discovered that a whopping 46% of Americans fall below the estimated average requirement for magnesium.

Who benefits most?
Individuals with gastrointestinal or renal disorders are more susceptible to magnesium deficiency. The older population is also at a greater risk.

How to supplement:
Magnesium is a bulky mineral that can interact with other nutrients. For example, high doses of supplemental zinc has been shown to inhibit the absorption of magnesium. It may be best to take a stand-alone magnesium supplement and to take it at different time of day than other minerals.

Like calcium, there are multiple types of magnesium to consider. In general, magnesium citrate and magnesium chloride are better absorbed than magnesium oxide. Regardless, taking magnesium with food or right before bed can ensure a smooth experience.

7. Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria similar to those found in the body. They primarily affect the gastrointestinal tract to help keep your microbiome in balance. Probiotics can be consumed as fermented foods and drinks or through supplementation. There are numerous strains of probiotics, each contributing to the healthy mix of living organisms in your gastrointestinal tract.

Who benefits most?
The balance of good and bad bacteria can be disrupted by certain lifestyle factors and medications. That’s why your doctor might suggest taking a probiotic supplement while on an antibiotic cycle.

How to supplement:
You can find single-strain probiotic supplements, but you may want more bang for your buck. A supplement with several different strains mimics the variety that’s found in your body’s gastrointestinal tract. You’ll also want to consider a probiotics formula with prebiotics, the non-digestible carbohydrates that feed probiotics.

8. Vitamin B12

There are many reasons why vitamin B12 is important for health. For one, it’s an essential vitamin, something your body can’t produce on its own. But you’ve most likely heard it can “support energy levels.” Unfortunately, that does not mean you’ll get a caffeine-like boost. What B12 does do is maintain healthy nerve and blood cells. It also helps make DNA and serves as a cofactor for key metabolic processes, such as reconverting homocysteine to methionine.

Lack of B12 can increase homocysteine levels, which is detrimental to heart health. Deficiency also increases your risk of developing megaloblastic anemia. This type of anemia is characterized by large, immature red blood cells that cannot carry enough oxygen for the body to function normally. Weakness and fatigue usually follow.

Who benefits most?
Vitamin B12 is absorbed in the stomach with help from a compound called intrinsic factor and gastric acids. “With less stomach acid, the body can’t absorb as much B12,” notes Harvard Health. Age, medication and certain health conditions can all reduce gastric acid production, thereby increasing your body’s need for B12. Speak to your healthcare provider if you’re at least 50 years old or have a gastrointestinal disorder, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s.

Those following a vegan diet can also have low B12 levels, unless they regularly look for vegan B12 sources.

How to supplement:
There are a number of ways to supplement vitamin B12. In addition to pills and powders, you can try sublingual tabs or nasal sprays. With regards to absorption, the latter are not necessarily superior. Some people find them easier to take, though. Before taking a stand-alone B12 supplement, check if your multivitamin already supplies it. Many do and in sufficient amounts.

9. Vitamin C

Like B12, the human body does not make vitamin C. It’s another essential nutrient that must be obtained through dietary means. With sufficient vitamin C, your body can successfully synthesize collagen, L-carnitine and certain neurotransmitters. It even plays a role in protein metabolism. Most notably, perhaps, vitamin C is known for its antioxidant powers, fighting the effects of free radical damage.

Who benefits most?
Because it’s an essential nutrient, everyone benefits from adequate vitamin C intake. It’s also worth noting that studies have shown “smokers have lower plasma and leukocyte vitamin C levels than nonsmokers, due in part to increased oxidative stress,” says the National Institutes of Health.

How to supplement:
Vitamin C is commonly formulated in immune health supplements. Additionally, you can find vitamin C in a daily multivitamin or on its own in a variety of forms – like tasty, kid-approved gummies. Note, the recommended daily amount (RDA) is only 65 to 90 milligrams, unless pregnant or nursing. Many supplements provide double the RDA for vitamin C. And while more might seem better, limit daily diet and supplement intake to under 2,000 milligrams to avoid stomach distress.

10. Vitamin D3

It’s known as the “sunshine vitamin,” because your body can synthesize vitamin D3 when skin is exposed to natural sunlight. The process isn’t perfect, though. The quantity and quality of sunlight affects adequate absorption, which you need for certain health benefits. Namely, vitamin D3 is responsible for influencing calcium absorption, which is paramount for bone health.

Who benefits most?
How much vitamin D your body produces on its own is a major factor in D3 supplementation. Synthesizing vitamin D from sunlight can be affected if you have a darker complexion, frequently cover up when outside or use high-SPF sunblock. Vitamin D is particularly important for women who are pregnant. Lack of the nutrient increases your risk of preeclampsia and Cesarean section birth.

How to supplement:
Vitamin D3 is the form of vitamin D your body manufactures. So, first, make sure your supplement supplies D3, or cholecalciferol. Next, check the potency. It is possible to get too much vitamin D. The tolerable limit is 4,000 IU per day, but the RDA for most adults is only 600 IU. Get your vitamin D levels tested before choosing your supplement.

11. Zinc

Among the many zinc benefits, immune health support is probably the most familiar. Indeed, zinc has been shown to regulate white blood cell formation, which is critical for proper immune system function. Also, zinc has antioxidant properties to protect against free radical damage. The problem is that the body doesn’t have a specialized form of storage for zinc. Hence, why it’s so important to continuously maintain zinc intake through diet and supplements.

Who benefits most?
Meat is the most bioavailable source of zinc. If you follow a plant-based or vegan diet, it might be difficult to maintain healthy nutrient levels. This is especially true if you fill your plate with legumes and whole grains, instead, as these contain phytates that inhibit zinc absorption. Pregnant and lactating women should also be mindful of their zinc intake. Lactation can deplete your zinc supply.

How to supplement:
According to the Mayo Clinic, zinc supplements are most effective taken at least one hour before or two hours after a meal. When shopping, you might notice chelated zinc capsules. Chelation binds the mineral to another molecule (like an amino acid) to mimic the body’s natural absorption process. That said, you don’t necessarily need a chelated formula. Zinc comes in the form of lozenges and liquids. Whichever form is easier take and easy on your stomach is the best choice.

How to Decide Which are the Best Supplements for Your Body

Yes, all 10 of these nutrients are important supplements for beginners. That doesn’t mean you should take all 10, though. Your body has needs that your spouse, children and best friend do not have. When it comes to supplements, this uniqueness matters. So before you buy the first nutrient-packed formula you see, follow the careful steps below. These tips will ensure you start your new supplement routine on the right foot.

Set some health goals.

Why do you want to start a supplement routine? Maybe COVID-19 has sparked an interest in immune health supplements. Or maybe you’re trying to start a family, in which case you need nutrients that support fertility and fetal development. Whatever your goals are, make them specific and focused. You want to be able to articulate them clearly with your doctor or healthcare provider.

Talk to a healthcare professional.

Before starting a supplement routine, it’s imperative that you speak with a physician or registered dietitian. Talk to them about your health goals, so they understand your concerns. Tell them about any and all medications you are currently taking (if they don’t already have it on file). Dietary supplements can interfere with prescription drug therapies. Some nutrients can have negative interactions with one another, as well.

Also, a healthcare professional may be able to order a complete nutrient analysis. This is a blood test that shows your current nutrient levels. It can identify any deficiencies, so you and your doctor know what areas need the most focus.

Comparison shop.

Not all supplements are created equally. Supplement manufacturers do a lot to differentiate themselves in a saturated market. Look out for unnecessary additives. If you can, ask the company where they source their ingredients. Get as much information as you can from various brands. Decide what characteristics are most important for you, and then narrow down the brands based on how many boxes they tick off.

Give it time.

Unless you’re taking an intravenous supplement, you probably won’t notice any changes right away. Supplements take time. Exactly how long it takes for supplements to work depends on several factors. The amount you’re taking, the severity of your deficiency (if applicable) and the quality of the formula can all affect a nutrient’s efficacy. So, be patient. Wait it out for a few weeks – maybe even six to 10 – before you give up on or alter your supplement routine.

Adjust as needed.

While you’re waiting, take note of how you feel. If you notice any changes (for worse or for better), jot them down to share with your doctor. Based on your feedback, they might recommend a different potency, a different mix of supplements or a different supplement form.

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.