Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In



Your Guide to Understanding Vitamins and Supplements

Do you know which vitamins are worth taking and which are best to skip? If vitamin powders, pills or gummies are part of your routine, keep reading.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Ever since multivitamin and mineral supplements first hit store shelves decades ago, they’ve promised to improve your health with just a couple of pills. And whether you like mixing powders into your morning coffee or today’s on-trend gummy vitamins, these products do make it super simple to round out your nutrition. 

But while vitamins are undeniably popular, not all health practitioners agree on whether they’re actually needed. Do you really need to be taking vitamins? Are there long-term benefits to multivitamins? Which vitamins are best?

We’re breaking down what, exactly, vitamins can do for you. Find the answers to all of your vitamin and supplements questions right here.

What’s the difference between vitamins and supplements?

You aren’t alone if you’re a little confused about vitamins and supplements. The words vitamins and supplements get thrown around a lot, and they’re often used interchangeably. 

However, vitamins and supplements are different products. According to the FDA, any items you’re taking to supplement your diet are considered dietary supplements. These include vitamins, minerals, fish oils, herbal supplements, adaptogens and more. All vitamins, whether they come in pill, gummy, powder or liquid form, are technically supplements. And multivitamins are actually the most popular kind of dietary supplement. 

But while all vitamins are supplements, not all supplements are vitamins. Only supplements that contain an actual vitamin, like vitamin D, are considered vitamins. Otherwise, products like protein powder, St. John’s wort, fish oil and collagen are dietary supplements only.

What are the most important vitamins?

There are a ton of different nutrients your body needs to stay healthy and properly fueled. So, when you’re trying to decide which vitamins you might need, you have a lot of options.

There are 13 common vitamins you can look to:

  • Vitamin A (which can be found in retinol form or as beta-carotene)
  • Vitamin B1
  • Vitamin B2
  • Vitamin B3
  • Vitamin B5
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin B7
  • Vitamin B9, or folate
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K

This list doesn’t include other minerals and nutrients, like fiber, calcium, magnesium and zinc. To determine which vitamins are the most important for you, you can follow the USDA’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Is it better to get vitamins through food or supplements?

Plenty of people rely on supplements to ensure they’re getting the right amount of nutrients each day. But taking supplements isn’t the best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need for a balanced diet. 

Researchers at Johns Hopkins examined supplements’ effectiveness in three different studies. They looked at the effects of supplements, specifically multivitamins, on individuals who were looking to reduce their risks for heart disease, cancer, heart attacks and cognitive decline. Over years of use, those multivitamins didn’t have any significant impact on participants’ health.

In fact, there was no reduction in risk for any of those diseases or concerns. Even over periods as long as 12 years, multivitamins had no effect on the health of the studies’ participants. Instead, researchers noted that vitamin intake through a healthy, balanced diet is more important.

However, this doesn’t mean that all dietary supplements are ineffective. Researchers did point out that folic acid supplements are effective – and even important – for women of childbearing age. And, as Penn Medicine explains, some supplements do work to deliver key nutrients to individuals who lack them in their diets.

The smartest approach, according to Harvard Medical School, is to eat foods rich in various vitamins and minerals. If you have a vitamin deficiency, you can benefit from taking a supplement for whatever nutrients you’re lacking.

Are vitamin supplements safe?

Dietary supplements aren’t strictly regulated. The FDA doesn’t require vitamins to prove their safety or efficacy. For this reason, we always suggest looking for a high-quality brand with third-party testing.  

If you’re on prescription medication, it’s also worth being extra cautious as some vitamins can interfere with prescription medications. For example, vitamin K can negatively affect blood thinner medications; vitamin A, on the other hand, can increase smokers’ risk level for lung cancer.

But, with all of this in mind, it’s important to point out that plenty of vitamins are perfectly safe.  It’s always a good idea to approach a new vitamin or supplement with caution. Talk with your doctor before trying any; you’ll be able to discuss potential interactions and safety. 

Which vitamins are worth buying?

Head to your local grocery store or drugstore, and you’ll find entire aisles filled with dietary supplements. Sorting out which are worth their promises – and worth trying – isn’t so simple.

There are, however, a few particular supplements that are worth taking. Research shows that the following vitamins are among the most effective:

  • Vitamin D: A 2008 review and a 2013 meta-analysis both found that vitamin D supplements decreased overall mortality. Vitamin D is actually one of the most beneficial options, as it’s been shown to positively affect bone health and immunity too.
  • Zinc: This mineral, when taken as a dietary supplement, reduces the severity and lifespan of common colds. It’s a helpful one to add into your routine when you’re under the weather.
  • Vitamin B3: Also known as niacin, this nutrient is particularly beneficial for those who have heart disease. It’s been shown to reduce the risk of strokes or heart attacks, decreasing the risk of death too. 

Other vitamins may also be a smart choice for your overall health if you’re suffering from any deficiencies. If you aren’t getting enough vitamin C from food alone, for example, a supplement can fill the gap. 

It’s a good idea to discuss any vitamins and minerals you might be lacking with your doctor; then, you’ll know exactly what’s most worthwhile for you.

How do I pick the right vitamins?

Deciding which vitamins to buy is a two-part process. First, you’ll want to look into which dietary supplements might be the most beneficial for you. Then, you’ll want to choose a brand and form that’s safe and effective. 

Here’s how you can sort through all of your options and find the right fit.

Don’t fall for grand claims

If a supplement seems too good to be true, it likely is. Any product that claims to be a cure-all or work miracles on your health isn’t going to fulfill those promises. In fact, if it claims to cure anything at all, don’t buy it. The FDA does require supplements to keep their labels “truthful and accurate”, but those claims are only verified after a product goes to market. Be wary and look for claims supported by evidence, like research studies.

Take a look at third-party testing

Because supplements see little oversight from the FDA, it’s up to third-party organizations to vet most products. These third-party groups examine supplements from a variety of brands, checking them for contamination, setting standards and verifying ingredients. 

Look for supplements that are labeled, tested or verified by NSF International, Underwriters Laboratory (UL), U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) or ConsumerLab. All three of these organizations offer certifications for dietary supplements, and any products that have gone through them are trustworthy.

And, according to Consumer Reports, watch out for supplements labeled with nothing but “verified” or “approved” stamps. They aren’t proven to be safe at all; those labels are totally meaningless.

Are gummy vitamins a good choice?

Gummy vitamins are everywhere right now. But these tasty treat-like supplements aren’t just for kids anymore – adults make up as much as 80 percent of the gummy vitamin market. And who wouldn’t prefer sweet gummies over huge pills or chalky powders?

However, there are some drawbacks to gummy supplements. While they’re delicious and convenient, they aren’t exactly the best for your health. Gummy vitamins can contain nearly as much sugar as some candies; most adult and child gummies have at least 1 gram of sugar, while Sour Patch Kids have 1.8 grams of sugar. 

It’s also difficult to get nutrients into gummies. In an analysis of popular gummy multivitamins, 37 different brands were found to lack most of the key 13 vitamins recommended for adults. And even in gummies that did contain the right nutrients, many featured an excessive amount. For example, some brands of gummy vitamins contain way more folate and vitamin A than their labels claim. This is likely due to the challenges of making gummies; the gummy texture tends to degrade vitamins, leaving manufacturers to add more to make up for any loss.

If you can’t take vitamins in other forms, gummy vitamins can be a good alternative. Just make sure to look for third-party certified products and make sure you’re selecting a brand without excess sugar. 

Focus on food before turning to vitamins

The best way to approach vitamins is to think of them as a backup. You should aim to get the bulk of your vitamins and minerals from food each day. If that doesn’t happen, or if you need a boost, dietary supplements can help.

To learn more about vitamins and supplements, check out these articles:

Show Your Liver Some Love: A Clean Eating Webinar

Join Clean Eating dietitians Tiffani Bachus and Erin Macdonald for an exclusive webinar all about liver health and wellness.