Vitamins help your body grow and work the way it should. There are 13 vitamins—vitamins C, A, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate).
Vitamins have different jobs–helping you resist infections, keeping your nerves healthy, and helping your body get energy from food or your blood to clot properly. By following the Dietary Guidelines, you will get enough of most of these vitamins from food.
Vitamins and minerals are measured in a variety of ways. The most common are:
- mg – milligram
- mcg – microgram
- IU – international unit
Your doctor might suggest that, like some older adults, you need extra of a few vitamins, as well as the mineral calcium. It is usually better to get the nutrients you need from food, rather than a pill. That’s because nutrient-dense foods contain other things that are good for you like fiber. Look for foods fortified with certain vitamins and minerals, like some B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D. That means those nutrients are added to the foods to help you meet your needs.
HERE’S A TIP: Most older people don’t need a complete multivitamin supplement. But if you don’t think you are making the best food choices, look for a supplement sold as a complete vitamin and mineral supplement. It should be well balanced and contain 100% of most recommended vitamins and minerals. Read the label to make sure the dose is not too large. Avoid supplements with mega-doses. Too much of some vitamins and minerals can be harmful, and you might be paying for supplements you don’t need.
Minerals also help your body function. Some minerals, like iodine and fluoride, are only needed in very small quantities. Others, such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium, are needed in larger amounts. As with vitamins, if you eat a varied diet, you will probably get enough of most minerals.
Vitamin and mineral supplements for people over age 50:
- Vitamin D: If you are age 50–70, you need at least 600 IU, but not more than 4,000 IU. If you are age 70 and older, you need at least 800 IU, but not more than 4,000 IU. You can get vitamin D from fatty fish, fish liver oils, fortified milk and milk products, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin B6: Men need 1.7 mg every day. Women need 1.5 mg every day. You can get vitamin B6 from fortified cereals, whole grains, organ meats like liver, and fortified soy-based meat substitutes.
- Vitamin B12: You need 2.4 mcg every day. Some people over age 50 have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 found naturally in foods, so make sure you get enough of the supplement form of this vitamin, such as from fortified foods. You can get vitamin B12 from fortified cereals, meat, fish, poultry, and milk.
- Folate: You need 400 mcg each day. Folic acid is the form used to fortify grain products or added to dietary supplements. You can get folate from dark-green leafy vegetables like spinach, beans and peas, fruit like oranges and orange juice, and folic acid from fortified flour and fortified cereals.
Calcium is a mineral that is important for strong bones and teeth, so there are special recommendations for older people who are at risk for bone loss. You can get calcium from milk and milk products (remember to choose fat-free or low-fat whenever possible), some forms of tofu, dark-green leafy vegetables (like collard greens and kale), soybeans, canned sardines and salmon with bones, and calcium-fortified foods.
There are several types of calcium supplements. Calcium citrate and calcium carbonate tend to be the least expensive.
Calcium for people over 50:
- Women age 51 and older: 1,200 mg each day
- Men age 51 to 70: 1,000 mg each day
- Men age 71 and older: 1,200 mg each day
- Women and men age 51 and older: Don’t take more than 2,000 mg of calcium in a day.
Sodium is another mineral. In most Americans’ diets, sodium primarily comes from salt (sodium chloride), though it is naturally found in some foods. Sodium is also added to others during processing, often in the form of salt. We all need some sodium, but too much over time can contribute to raising your blood pressure or put you at risk for heart disease, stroke, or kidney disease.
How much sodium is okay? People 51 and older should reduce their sodium to 1,500 mg each day—that includes sodium added during manufacturing or cooking as well as at the table when eating. That is about 2/3 teaspoon of salt.
Preparing your own meals at home without using a lot of processed foods or adding salt will allow you to control how much sodium you get. Look for grocery products marked “low sodium,” “unsalted,” “no salt added,” “sodium free,” or “salt free.”
To limit sodium to 1,500 mg daily, try using less salt when cooking, and don’t add salt before you take the first bite. If you make this change slowly, you will get used to the difference in taste. Eating more vegetables and fruit also helps—they are naturally low in sodium and provide more potassium.
HERE’S A TIP: In the case of sodium, don’t be confused by the Nutrition Facts label. It uses the recommended level for people 50 and younger, 2,400 mg. Just check the actual milligrams of sodium on the label and keep to the amount recommended for people 51 and older—1,500 mg.