The good guide to vitamins

We know the rules; eat your five-a-day, drink plenty of water, get some exercise. Yet, data from the most recent Ministry of Health Adult Nutrition Survey shows that New Zealand’s adults were five percent heavier in 2008 than in 1997. Iron deficiency in women jumped from 2.9 percent to 7.2 percent, and most New Zealanders do not have enough calcium or zinc in their diets. It’s enough to have you reaching for the vitamins, but is pill popping enough? We asked a few experts for advice.

In 1911, Polish biochemist Casimir Funk isolated a substance in rice husks that appeared to cure ailments common in populations that de-husked their rice. He considered these chemicals vital aimines which he shortened to ‘vitamines’Routine is key

Just buying vitamin supplements can help you feel healthier but, like a gym membership, they need to be used regularly. “It’s so important we take vitamins, even when eating a fully organic diet,” says Wilhemeena Isabella Monroe from Soul Centre in Auckland. “The mineral and vitamin content in New Zealand’s soil just isn’t enough to give us what we need to thrive.” Get into a routine and stick to it.

Read the instructions

“The instruction ‘with food’ actually means ‘at the same time as eating’,” says Lynley Baker from Good Health. “Not half an hour before or half an hour later. Vitamins are like the spark plug that help food work, so if it says take at the same time it’s because you will get the most out of them that way.”

Beware the exceptions

While multi vitamins generally work best with breakfast, make sure you heed alternative instructions. “Zinc is a great example,” says Erica Lahmert from Lifestream. “Take it on an empty-ish stomach before sleep for best results.”

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Caffeine, alcohol and tannins 

“Caffeine inhibits iron absorption,” explains Baker. Swallow your pill with water and have that coffee later. The same applies to tannins, which bind to iron, so don’t take your supplements with a cup of tea. “Alcohol inhibits absorption in general, so you should be taking multi vitamins with breakfast to avoid any crossover,” says Lahmert. 

Know what works together

Vitamins and minerals have friends and foes. “B vitamins work best in a complex,” says Baker. “Taking them in isolation is less effective”. 

Iron and Zinc, two common stand-alone vitamins, do not play well. “They actually compete with each other,” explains Lahmert. “It’s a good idea to take them apart – one in the morning and one in the evening.” Iron also works better if taken with some sort of acid. Knocking it back with your vitamin C is perfect.

Low fat means low effect

The common components of multi vitamins, A, D and E, are fat-soluble. You need dietary fats for them to work properly. “Take them with a glass of milk or a handful of nuts,” says Lesley Braun from the Blackmores Institute. This is also true of co enzyme Q10, a substance naturally made in the body that is essential to healthy function, but which naturally decreases with age. “Co enzyme Q10 helps stabilise blood pressure, and improve respiratory function,” explains Braun. “Without dietary fats it could not be absorbed.” 

Use to maximum effect

Knowing what supplements to use and when can really boost your health.

“Multi vitamins are nutritional insurance,” says Lahmert. “Taking them daily bolsters your immune system.” But it is possible to use vitamins in a targeted way. “Scientific studies have shown that taking large doses of vitamin C can reduce the length of a cold, and taking zinc over the winter months can improve your body’s ability to fight a virus.”

Quality over quantity

“Quality is the key when choosing vitamins,” says Lesley Braun. “Some manufacturers will go the extra mile, making sure capsules dissolve in the right way, and are potent right up to the expiry date.” Lahmert agrees. “At Lifestream all our vitamin supplements are derived from a food base, not synthetically made. It makes it easier for the body to get the most from them.” Be careful if you are buying vitamins in a form other than a straightforward capsule. “Effervescent and chewable supplements can have added sugar or sweetener, especially those targeted at children,” explains Baker. “Some vitamins aren’t very stable in liquid form.” Paying a little more for a supplement with clear scientific backing pays dividends. 

“Supplements are an investment in your body,” says Braun. “The more you put into it, the more you get out.”

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