Should You Swallow? The Vitamins and Supplements You Really Need
5 Facts About Vitamins and Your Health
Fact: Vitamins don't cancel out bad health habits.
"There are so many different disease-causing culprits in our lives that one vitamin cannot protect against them all," says Mark Moyad, MD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the director of preventive and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. "Vitamins can't significantly undo the toll that risk factors like smoking, excess alcohol, air pollution, obesity, and lack of physical activity take on our health," adds Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, the director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University. In fact, research suggests that some people may be more likely to put their health on the line when taking vitamins, because they believe the pills will shield them from harm.
Fact: Megadoses are useless and possibly even harmful.
"Our bodies have individual requirements for each nutrient, and once they've been met, we don't get an additional benefit from taking more, either from food or supplements," says Alice H. Lichtenstein, the director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts. Taking too much calcium, for example, can cause kidney stones and may increase your risk for heart attacks. What's more, some vitamins and minerals rely on the same mechanisms for absorption, "so if you flood your body with one compound, you may interfere with the absorption of other nutrients," Lichtenstein says.
Fact: What you put on your plate matters most.
Supplements are not a substitute for the nutrients found in whole foods. "Many compounds in foods may work synergistically to fend off disease," Blumberg says. Spinach, for instance, is a great source of iron, but it also contains literally thousands of other nutrients; an iron supplement contains only one. As long as you're eating a varied diet, it's extremely difficult to OD on the vitamins and minerals you get from foods, but exceeding your RDA is easy when you're popping supplements.
Fact: You're already getting enough of the key nutrients you need.
More than 90 percent of Americans have the recommended levels of several essential nutrients, such as vitamins A and D and folate, in their bodies, a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. "Many common foods that we eat -- for example, breakfast staples like cereal, milk, eggs, bread, and orange juice -- may be fortified with a variety of vitamins, including folic acid, calcium, vitamin D, and niacin," Lichtenstein says. Some foods are required by law to be fortified: Since 1998 the FDA has mandated the addition of folic acid to many grain products, like flour and pasta, to ensure that women of childbearing age maintain adequate blood folate levels to prevent neural tube defects. Plus many manufacturers voluntarily fortify foods (think eggs or peanut butter with added omega-3 fatty acids) to make them more appealing to health-conscious consumers. This practice, which results in what are called functional foods, is now a $41-billion-a-year industry.
Fact: Still, you're low in certain vitamins and minerals.
The CDC report found that women ages 20 to 39 have the lowest intake of iodine, a substance that is necessary for fetal brain development during pregnancy, and that African- and Mexican-Americans are most likely to fall short on vitamin D, which can help prevent conditions like osteoporosis, colds, and flu. In such instances, vitamins can help fill nutritional gaps. Supplements may also be a good idea if you no longer eat certain food groups because of certain dietary regimens, such as vegetarianism, or food allergies, Blumberg says. To find out where you may be falling short, check out the next page.
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