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Healthy Eating

Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are two of the main types of nutrients that your body needs to survive and stay healthy.

Vitamins help your body grow and work the way it should. There are 13 vitamins—vitamins A, C, 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.

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.

Measurements for Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamins and minerals are measured in a variety of ways. The most common are:

  • mg – milligram
  • mcg – microgram
  • IU – international unit

Micrograms are used to measure very small amounts—there are 1,000 micrograms in a milligram. The size of an international unit varies depending on the vitamin or drug it is used to measure.

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.

Most older people can get all the nutrients they need from foods. But if you aren’t sure, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian to find out if you are missing any important vitamins or minerals. He or she may recommend a vitamin supplement.

If you do need to supplement your diet, look for a supplement that contains the vitamin or mineral you need without a lot of other unnecessary ingredients. 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. Your doctor or pharmacist can recommend brands that fit your needs.

Sodium

Sodium is another important mineral. In most Americans’ diets, sodium primarily comes from salt (sodium chloride). Whenever you add salt to your food, you're adding sodium. But the Dietary Guidelines shows that most of the sodium we eat doesn’t come from our saltshakers—it’s added to many foods during processing or preparation. We all need some sodium, but too much over time can lead to high blood pressure, which can raise your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

How much sodium is okay? People 51 and older should reduce their sodium intake to 2,300 mg each day. That is about 1 teaspoon of salt and includes sodium added during manufacturing or cooking as well as at the table when eating. If you have high blood pressure or prehypertension, limiting sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day, about 2/3 teaspoon of salt, may be helpful. Preparing your own meals at home without using a lot of processed foods or salt will allow you to control how much sodium you get. 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. Also look for grocery products marked “low sodium,” “unsalted,” “no salt added,” “sodium free,” or “salt free.” Also check the Nutrition Facts Label to see how much sodium is in a serving.

Eating more fresh vegetables and fruit also helps—they are naturally low in sodium and provide more potassium. Get your sauce and dressing on the side and use only as much as you need for taste.

Key Vitamins and Minerals for People Over Age 50
Vitamin D If you are age 51–70, you need at least 15 mcg (600 IU) each day, but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU). If you are over age 70, you need at least 20 mcg (800 IU), but not more than 100 mcg (4,000 IU). You can get vitamin D from fatty fish, fish liver oils, fortified milk and milk products, and fortified cereals.
Vitamin B12 You need 2.4 mcg every day. You can get this vitamin from meat, fish, poultry, milk, and fortified breakfast cereals. Some people over age 50 have trouble absorbing the vitamin B12 found naturally in foods. They may need to take vitamin B12 supplements and eat foods fortified with this vitamin.
Calcium Men age 51-70 need 1,000 mg each day. Men age 71 and older and women age 51 and older need 1,200 mg each day. Don’t consume more than 2,000 mg each day. 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 other dairy, some forms of tofu, dark-green leafy vegetables, soybeans, canned sardines and salmon with bones, and calcium-fortified foods.
Magnesium

Women age 51 and over need 320 mg each day. Men need 420 mg. This mineral, generally, is found in foods containing dietary fiber, such as green leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes,
and nuts and seeds. Breakfast cereals and other fortified foods often have added magnesium. Magnesium is also present in tap, mineral, or bottled drinking water.

Potassium For people age 51 and over, 4,700 mg per day is adequate. Many different fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy foods contain potassium. Foods high in potassium include dried apricots, lentils, and potatoes. Adults get a lot of their potassium from milk, coffee, tea, and other nonalcoholic beverages.

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For More Information on Vitamins and Minerals

Office of Dietary Supplements                                    
National Institutes of Health
1-301-435-2920
ods@nih.gov
www.ods.od.nih.gov

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
1-888-644-6226 (toll-free)
1-866-464-3615 (TTY/toll-free)
info@nccih.nih.gov
www.nccih.nih.gov

U.S. Food and Drug Administration
1-888-463-6332 (toll-free)
druginfo@fda.hhs.gov
www.fda.gov