Updated: Aug 19
Have you ever wondered how useful vitamin and mineral supplements are...
...especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Vitamin and mineral supplements can have benefits for some people.
In this article you are going to read when it's useful to take supplements, how to find out your current vitamin and mineral intake and how supplements compare versus real food.
Micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, are essential nutrients the human body can't do without.
They are involved in an amazingly wide range of processes:
metabolism of carbohydrates, fat and protein;
DNA synthesis and repair;
and more. (1)
If they're so important, they can surely impact immunity, right?
You may be wondering then:
"Should you take multivitamin and mineral (MVM) supplements then just to cover your bases?"
To answer that question...
We need to make a difference between short-term consumption and long-term consumption, because there are some potential health risks involved.
Short-term consumption of multivitamin and mineral supplements
Large-scale studies show that MVM supplements produce little or no harm in the short run. (4)
That means it may be beneficial to take a supplement during a period where you expect to be at a higher risk of contracting a viral infection.
In this case:
If you are living in an area where your risk of contracting COVID-19 is higher, an MVM supplement could prove useful.
There are a few important things to consider to avoid any pitfalls.
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If taking a supplement would directly affect the quality of your diet, then it would not be beneficial.
Taking a supplement could create a situation where less ideal or bad food choices can be more easily justified.
Why is that a bad thing?
This could indirectly lead to a WEAKENED immune system instead:
through not eating immune strengthening foods; and
through the consumption of harmful foods.
Vitamins and minerals are only one part of the puzzle.
Have you read the other parts of the puzzle yet?
If you decide to take a supplement, consider checking your current intake of vitamins and minerals first.
Don't worry, there's an easy way to go about it.
You can read it further down below under:
"Online nutrition calculator"
Long-term consumption of multivitamin and mineral supplements
In the short run supplementing with vitamins and minerals may be relatively safe...
...unless you think "the more the better" and start taking large doses, such as doses above the maximum tolerable intake (don't do that)...
In the long run multivitamin and mineral supplements might actually slightly increase your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Why so many people blindly take multivitamin supplements then?
Misleading commercials and placebo effects are to blame for that, simply because consumers haven't been properly informed. (5)
Simply taking a MVM supplement to cover your bases is not necessarily a good idea.
It depends on:
your diet pattern;
your overall gut health (what you absorb);
the supplement dose;
any deficiencies you might have.
Therefore, it's always better to get professional advice from a dietitian or a physician.
Online nutrition calculator
If you'd like to check whether you have possible deficiencies yourself, you could also track your nutrients for several days with a free online nutrition calculator like Cronometer.
The link provided above is an affiliate link. You can create an account through this link or simply go to cronometer.com. No matter what you do, it is free of cost.
The advantage of using a tool like this, is that it provides you with more insight into your own eating pattern and how it may or may not benefit you.
How does it work?
Basically, you only have to enter the foods you eat and Cronometer calculates your vitamin and mineral intake for you.
For the most accurate result go through the following steps:
Enter all your meals, snacks and drinks in Cronometer
Process at least 2 working days or days where you have some regularity.
Process at least 1 weekend day or a day that differs a fair amount from your other (regular) days.
Thankfully, using Cronometer is very easy.
Let's use banana as an example:
If you find you are lacking in a specific micronutrient, or perhaps a variety of micronutrients, first consider using food as a way to compensate for this lack.
After having entered all your foods, you can see information about your vitamin and mineral intake right below your list of foods.
As you can see here, vitamin D & E are clearly lacking.
Vitamin D is an outlier, since it's hard to obtain through food.
Higher Latitudes (above the equator) are a significant risk factor for vitamin D deficiency.
In many places the sunlight is of insufficient nature for your body to produce sufficient vitamin D and supplementation (or consuming fortified foods) is actually advised. (6)
It is best to check your country's individual recommendations, since the latitude depends on your countries location.
For this example we are going to focus therefore on vitamin E.
If you're not getting enough vitamin E in your diet could simply use a search engine and find a list of foods rich in vitamin E.
As you can see, a list of foods appears straight away in 0,77 seconds with a mere 474 million search results.
To honor the internet gods, you now have to acknowledge the presence of all these search results by clicking on every single link.
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Once you're done and have become a vitamin E expert, you now choose the foods rich in vitamin E, which you would most likely incorporate into your diet.
Then use cronometer again for a day or two and see whether you can hit your marks this time around.
If you find it hard to figure it out on your own, a dietician is qualified to help you find a solution. He or she can also recommend specific supplements that cater to your needs.
Vitamins and Minerals in Foods
Food is preferred over supplements. After all, they contain these micronutrients in their natural form.
Not all food is created equal.
Certain foods impact immune response more than others.
Maybe that's because these foods contain a host of other nutrients or phytochemicals as well.
These nutrients may not be essential in the same way as vitamins and minerals are, but they can still be beneficial. (7)
What foods are we talking about?
Foods that are not only rich in vitamins and minerals, but also have favorable effects on your immune response, are:
Fruits and vegetables.
In 1983, they already realized that a greater fruit and vegetable consumption lead to a reduced risk of getting a cold. (8)
Effects on people with higher risk
In older people higher intake of fruits and vegetables improved immune function and showed a better response to a vaccine they were administered with. (9)
These immune strengthening results equip you to deal with viruses more efficiently...
...and that's exactly what we need for dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
Does age matter?
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The older you get, the more your immune response to viruses weakens.
That's one of the reasons most fatalities among people infected with the coronavirus have occurred among people older than 60 years. (10)
Another more vulnerable group, pregnant women, also benefits from a higher intake of fruits and vegetables:
Pregnant women are more resistant to respiratory infections during pregnancy. (11)
That is relevant, because:
COVID-19 is a respiratory tract infection.
What's the impact on other people who are at higher risk?
People with underlying health conditions are at higher risk for complications caused by COVID-19. (10)
But you want to know the good part?
When we look at a variety of people with a variety of health conditions on a large scale:
Fruits and vegetables are clearly associated with improved immune responses. (12)
Instead of rushing out to stock up on toilet paper, focus on the produce aisle...
Or get yourself some frozen veggies, frozen berries, etc.
Include an abundance of foods high in nutrient density on top of your existing diet:
Fruits and veggies are the foods with the highest amount of vitamins and minerals per calorie.
Supplements have their place, but don't prioritize them over food if that will influence your dietary choices.
It always serves to use an online nutrition calculator to gain insight into your vitamin and mineral intake upon which you can make more informed decisions.
Also important to keep in mind:
A dietitian can advise you on both diet and supplements.
It always pays off to inform your physician if you are taking any supplements.