Vitamins. There are so many options available today that it can be overwhelming. What types of vitamins are out there? What kind of supplement is best? Do people even need to take vitamins? The truth is that not all vitamins are created equal, and knowing the difference is essential.
My experience with vitamins began when I worked at an organic foods co-op in St. Paul, MN. I had seen drug-store variety synthetic vitamins before, but working at the co-op introduced me to food-based vitamins. The difference between food-based vitamins and synthetic vitamins is vast and important. Synthetic vitamins are man-made, harder to absorb, and come with significant risks, including increasing the risk of cancer and heart disease. Mega-vitamin companies latch onto nutrition trends, and create products that are low-quality, mass produced, and not tested for effectiveness. As with many areas of life, it’s best to stick with small, ethical companies that produce quality products, which means shopping at your local health food store, or ordering trusted products online.
The most important point I want to stress is that healthy, whole food is the best source of vitamins. From my experience working at the co-op and in the health and wellness field, I’ve noticed that people are often looking for a simple vitamin pill or powder to take to help them achieve health. There is no such thing. Although there are some great options for supplements, no green wonder powder will ever replace adding fresh, organic spinach and kale to your diet; no vitamin tablet will replace nutrition therapy. The foundation of health is built upon the food we choose to eat, the thoughts we think, and the love we show our bodies. Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine,” and this simple advice is some of the best.
Eating a wide variety of fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables is an excellent way to get easily absorbable, bioavailable vitamins and minerals. A good goal is to strive to eat a rainbow of different colors in fruits and vegetables every day. There are many options, to be served raw, steamed, and prepared in lots of other fun, delicious ways (check out this recipe blog and this recipe blog for inspiration):
Orange/yellow: Oranges, mango, sweet potato, pumpkin, yellow squash, carrots, orange/yellow peppers, bananas, apricots, nectarines, lemons, yellow apples, pumpkin, peaches
Red/purple: Tomatoes, red peppers, raspberries, strawberries, plums, grapes, grapefruit, eggplant, apples, red onions, watermelon, cranberries, pomegranate, blueberries, beets, purple cabbage, prunes
Green: Broccoli, spinach, romain, field greens, cabbage, celery, kiwi, avocado, green grapes, green beans, snap peas, sprouts, cucumber, zucchini, asparagus, green apples
The notion that “whole grains” are an essential part of a healthy diet has been perpetuated by corporate food companies that jumped on the whole wheat bread bandwagon, but there are enough issues with grains that people (especially those dealing with any sort of chronic health issue, whether that’s fatigue or irritability or something more serious) may want to reconsider the place of grains in their diet. I choose to forgo wheat for numerous reasons, and instead a small portion of my family’s diet consists of quinoa, organic brown or wild rice, and gluten-free whole oatmeal. They are good sources of protein, manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and other vitamins and minerals. They are also easy to digest and much less inflammatory than other grain options.
I abstain from eating animals due to a deep ethical aversion to it (my family does consume free-range local eggs from small farms, and raw local dairy in small amounts), but animal products can be an important part of a healthy diet. However, they can also be disastrous if the wrong foods are eaten. Most conventional meat, dairy, and eggs– those sold in most grocery stores across the US– come from animals who are kept in cages on unsanitary factory farms. Due to the unsanitary conditions, antibiotics use is rampant in the meat and dairy industry. Antibiotics in our food can wreak havoc on the body, changing the natural and extremely important flora of our digestive system, and creating superbugs.
Conventional factory farm meat and dairy also lacks nutrients because of the living conditions of the animals. Cows and chickens are meant to be grazing freely in sunlit pastures, eating fresh grass and insects. This lifestyle supplies the vitamin D, vitamin A, and other essential vitamins and minerals that eggs, meat, and dairy are known for. However, the majority of animals raised in the US for food are fed genetically modified corn and grains, and as previously mentioned, they spend the majority of their lives confined to cages. This is not only disastrous to the environment, but also to the animals and the humans who eventually consume them.
Raw, free-range, pastured meat, dairy, and eggs are different. The animals are treated well; they’re free to roam and graze; they’re absorbing plenty of vitamin D from the sun, and antibiotics are generally unneeded. These are powerful high-vitamin foods that contain easily absorbed important nutrients. We have been told for years that fat is bad, but good fats (from these animal sources, and also from plant sources like unrefined organic coconut oil, avocado, and nuts) are essential to proper brain function, and they can help stave off hunger, supporting healthy eating habits and weight-loss goals. Access to free-range, pastured and raw animal products is not always easy, but you can check this resource to see if there’s a small, ethical farm near you. More people in more cities across the US need to be demanding clean, ethical foods in their local grocery stores, so now is the time to start a grassroots movement if there are limited options in your area.
It’s clear that food is the ultimate, best source of vitamins and minerals that are essential to a healthy life. However, there are instances where vitamins and supplements might be necessary for healing, or to compliment an already healthy diet. In that case, food-based vitamins are the best option. Over the years researching various supplements, I have found a few high-quality sources that I turn to when I need a boost in my diet, and I also recommend them as a wellness coach to people on a healing journey. The following are some suggestions of supplements for vitamins and minerals that may be lacking in your diet.
-Fermented Cod Liver Oil and Butter Oil from Green Pasture: These supplements are relatively expensive, but definitely worth it if you’re trying to heal a chronic health issue, particularly an autoimmune or gut health issue. Cod liver oil and butter oil are nutrient-dense sources of crucial Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins K, D and A, and healthy fats. These powerful supplements can be beneficial for so many issues, including healing teeth, healing the gut, easing anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
-General multi-vitamin: A multi-vitamin should be considered by people with limited access to fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables or free-range animal products, people with specific therapeutic needs, women before, during, and after pregnancy, or anyone looking to improve their general health. Garden Of Life is my favorite food-based vitamin; they also make a wonderful prenatal vitamin that has beneficial herbs for women, and a good children’s chewable. In a multi-vitamin you will find essentials like zinc, calcium, selenium, and iron, among many others.
-Magnesium: Magnesium is an important mineral that is often lacking, which can produce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and fatigue among other issues. Parents who are finding themselves stressed and overwhelmed by parenthood might want to consider a supplement. I take a shot of Natural Calm magnesium drink when I am feeling stressed, and I find it very effective. Magnesium can also be beneficial for children with sleep or anxiety issues; I intend to start using magnesium oil for massages at bedtime. Magnesium-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, dried herbs, real cocoa powder, flax and sesame seeds, nuts, and molasses.
-Folate: Folate is the food version of Folic Acid, and the names are often used interchangeably. Most of us have heard about the benefits of Folic Acid, but Folic Acid, as the synthetic form, comes with risks. Folate does the job, without the risks. A food-based vitamin like Garden Of Life, Rainbow Light, and New Chapter (although they were recently bought out by mega-company Proctor & Gamble) will have folate instead of folic acid. Folate-rich foods include dark leafy greens, beans and lentils, cauliflower, citrus fruit, squash, celery, seeds and nuts.
-Vitamin C: Vitamin C can help treat cold and flu, and has been shown to be successful in the treatment of cancer as well. Camu Camu is a food-based source of vitamin C, derived from the fruit of the same name. It is a much more effective medicine than the plethora of synthetic vitamin C supplements out there. Vitamin C-rich foods include peppers, thyme and parsley, guava, kiwi, leafy greens, oranges, and strawberries.
-B Vitamins: B vitamins are essential for energy and good mental health; lack of B vitamins can spur fatigue, migraines, depression, anxiety, stress, memory loss, and worsened PMS. I swear I do not work for Garden Of Life, but I’ll promote their products again because they’re some of the highest quality, which is important if you’re going to spend money of vitamins: their Raw B Complex is a good choice. Vitamin B-rich foods include liver, clams, oysters, mussels, fish, raw cheese, free-range eggs, nuts, seeds, and veggies.
-Herbs are also a powerful addition to a healthy diet, and can be found in supplement form. Herb Pharm is my favorite brand for herbal tinctures, which include nutrient-dense options like anise, alfalfa, green tea, turmeric, echinacea, and St. John’s Wort.
While it is easy to get caught up in the wide variety of supplements available, learning to regard fresh, whole food as your medicine is the ultimate gift to yourself and your family. I’ve only taken a product or pill regularly when I’ve been in the midst of a healing journey. I turn to Camu Camu, Green Pasture’s butter oil, probiotics, and herbs when my son or I feel a cold or infection coming on. I keep calm with the magnesium drink, and improve energy with B vitamins and kombucha. The best steps I’ve ever taken to improve my general health are fermenting foods and planting a garden.
Wise mamas, share your favorite high-vitamin foods, food-based supplements, or herbal tinctures!