The Difference Between Vitamins and Supplements

Did you know that when you talk about taking your vitamins, you’re actually talking about taking a supplement? 

Vitamins are essential micronutrients that your body needs for a properly functioning metabolism. Your body isn’t able to manufacture most vitamins, except for vitamins D and one form of K, so a balanced diet is considered the best way to get vitamins.

Supplements are, as their name indicates, products you take to supplement your diet or to help promote optimal health and performance. They can include not only “vitamins” but minerals, herbs and other botanicals, amino acids, and other dietary ingredients.

What Do Vitamins Do?

Vitamins are needed by the body to support different functions. There are 13 different vitamins, each with various roles. For example, Vitamin A is an antioxidant that plays a role in vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell functions, and to support the immune system. The B-complex group includes 8 different vitamins, all of which are essential for cell metabolism. The body needs all of these vitamins to function optimally.

The thirteen vitamins required for human metabolism are:

●  Vitamin A: Retinols and Carotenoids
●  Vitamin B1: Thiamine
●  Vitamin B2:Riboflavin
●  Vitamin B3: Niacin
●  Vitamin B5:Pantothenic Acid
●  Vitamin B6: Pyridoxine
●  Vitamin B7: Biotin
●  Vitamin B9: Folic Acid or Folate
●  Vitamin B12: Cobalamins
●  Vitamin C: Acid
●  Vitamin D: Calciferols
●  Vitamin E: Tocopherols and Tocotrienols
●  Vitamin K: Quinones

What Are Fat Soluble and Water Soluble Vitamins?

Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble, which means the body stores any excess you don’t need in the liver and in body fat, which can cause harmful health effects. In contrast, the remaining vitamins are water soluble, easily absorbed by the body, with any excess excreted through urine. Because these vitamins are not stored in the body, however, they must be replenished regularly.

How Do Supplements Differ from Vitamins?

According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (1994), dietary supplements contain one or more dietary ingredients that may include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs and other botanicals, and other substances that are taken by mouth to fill in any deficiencies that may occur in the diet.

In contrast, vitamins can be found in food sources or as a component of dietary supplements. When someone refers to “taking vitamins,” they are actually referring to taking a supplement that contains vitamins.

Supplements are available in numerous forms, including tablets, capsules, gel gaps, powders, and liquids.

Why Do People Take Supplements?

According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition 2017 Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements, about 3 in 4 American adults report they take a dietary supplement. The main reason cited by supplement users in the survey was for overall health benefits. Additional reasons include filling in nutritional gaps in the diet.

Popular Supplements

Of the more than 170 million Americans who take supplements, 75% take vitamin or mineral supplements, such as a multivitamin, Vitamin D or calcium. The second most popular category is specialty supplements, specifically designed to support a particular structure or function in the body, such as joint health or immune support, followed by herbal/botanical supplements, sports nutrition and weight management supplements.

Aside from vitamins and minerals, popular supplements include:

Probiotics: These supplements contain live microorganisms intended to restore or maintain the balance of “good” gut bacteria.

Omega-3/Fatty Acid Supplements: Typically formulated with fish or krill oil, these supplements support heart, cognitive, and joint health.

Turmeric/Curcumin: Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, is used as an anti-inflammatory dietary supplement.

Collagen: The most abundant protein in the body, collagen levels decrease with age, which makes collagen supplements a popular choice to address aging of the skin, joint pain, bone and muscle loss.

Supplement Safety

According to the National Institutes of Health, the effectiveness of certain supplements is backed by scientific evidence and they may provide overall health benefits, as well as help manage certain health conditions. However, there are steps you should take to ensure safety.

Read the label. All products labelled as dietary supplements contain a Supplement Facts panel with information about active ingredients and any added ingredients. Look for products formulated without fillers, binders, and additives.

Choose supplements that are third-party tested. This means products are sent to an FDA-approved, licensed facility to be inspected by certified professionals to validate label claims and to ensure products are not contaminated or compromised with any harmful byproducts or additives.

Check for the GMP seal. This registration signifies that a company’s labs and facilities adhere to Good Manufacturing Practice, the only American National Standard in the dietary supplement industry. The GMP guidelines ensure a product has the composition, purity, strength, and quality as reflected on its label.

Watch for side effects. Supplements may cause unexpected side effects, especially if you are taking them in combination with other supplements or instead of prescribed medication. In addition, it’s possible to take too much of certain supplements or vitamins. For example, too much vitamin A can cause headaches and liver damage. An excess of iron can cause nausea and vomiting.

Tell your doctor. Be sure to inform your doctor, pharmacist or dietician of any supplements you are taking so you can determine what’s best for your overall health. Certain supplements can interact negatively with prescription or over the counter medications, and some must be avoided before a surgical procedure.

The Bottom Line

Vitamins differ from supplements in that they are found in foods, as well as synthesized to be used in supplements. Supplements are products that contain one or more ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and botanicals, taken orally to fortify the diet.

Because the modern western diet may not provide us with sufficient nutrients, supplements are a convenient way to fill dietary gaps. Supplements such as probiotics or omega-3 fatty acid supplements can also be an effective addition to a health regimen.

When you purchase supplements, you should take certain safety precautions. LiveWell Nutrition supplements are third-party certified and include the GMP seal, ensuring quality and purity of products.

Other Reading: Why Breakfast is Important for a Healthy Body