What You Should Know About Taking Vitamins

If you’re like nearly half of all Americans, you take at least one supplement to boost your health. But are you spending your money on the right ones? For that matter, do you need to take vitamins at all? It can be hard to know.

With the help of top nutrition experts, we’ve combed through the research and pored over the products to create an information-packed, easy-to-use guide to what to take (and skip) to protect your health for years to come.

Q: I think I eat pretty well. Do I really need supplements?

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Possibly. Some experts, like Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of What to Eat: An Aisle-by- Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating, say that if you eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy products, you can skip the supplements. (Ideally, it’s better to get the vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need through real food, since all the nutrients in the food often work together to enhance absorption.)

However, other experts say that most of us overestimate how well we’re really eating and that taking a multivitamin couldn’t hurt. In fact, according to a recent USDA report, most Americans are consuming too few fruits and vegetables, high-fiber whole grains, seafood, and low-fat milk and dairy products—all of which are crucial to ensuring that we’re getting essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients. “Supplements can provide a base, an insurance of sorts, in case you don’t get certain nutrients that day,” says David Heber, MD, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition and author of What Color Is Your Diet?

Many doctors give multivitamins in particular a thumbs-up, for the variety of essential vitamins, minerals and other nutrients they provide. (See “Multi Musts” at the bottom of the page.) Photo: Thinkstock

Q: Are there supplements that every woman should take?

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In addition to a multi, many healthcare practitioners now recommend omega-3s, extra calcium and vitamin D, because it’s tough to squeeze the right amounts of these into your diet every day. They’re all linked to strong health benefits, ranging from lower risk of cancer and heart disease to better mood. Of course, check with your doctor before starting a supplement regimen.

OMEGA-3s should be sourced from either fish oil or algae (check the label); experts recommend 1,000 mg daily. The key fatty acids in omega- 3s are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA is the more potent, but older formulas will often have more EPA. You just want to be sure to pick a supplement with a combination of the two—which will be indicated on the label. Some companies will also add a little bit of vitamin E (it’s often on the label as tocopherol), since it can help prevent omega-3s from becoming rancid.

Calcium is crucial for strong bones— especially for women, who are five times more likely than men to develop bone-weakening osteoporosis. According to the USDA, pre-menopausal women under 50 need about 1,000 mg a day; those over 50 or who’ve gone through menopause need 1,200.

Most doctors recommend at least some supplementation, since a glass of milk only provides about 300 mg, and we also lose a lot in other ways. “Dark-colored sodas, alcohol, acidic foods, meats and coffee all deplete our stores of calcium,” says Mark Hyman, MD, founder of The Ultra- Wellness Center and author of Ultrametabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss. Keep in mind that vitamin D aids in calcium absorption (which is why it’s often added to milk), so look for supplements that combine the two, or be sure to take your D and calcium pills at the same time.

Vitamin D may help stave off a multitude of health problems such as cancer, depression and heart disease. “We recommend extra because most multivitamins don’t contain enough,” says Dr. Heber. In part, that’s because this past November, the RDA was increased from 400 to 600 IU (800 if you’re over 71). Though foods like fatty fish, liver and eggs do contain a small amount, it’s almost impossible to get all your D from food. Our bodies make it naturally when exposed to sunlight, but thanks to weather variability and sun protection to lower skin cancer risk, that may not be happening as often as it should. There’s some disagreement among experts about whether we get enough D, so ask your doctor to check your D levels with a simple blood test before taking a pill. (If you do supplement, look for D3, which is the variation best absorbed by the body.) Photo: Shuttersock

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