Diets - Should you Supplement?

If you are like more than half of the U.S. adult population, you take some form of dietary supplement. Nutritional supplementsDiet Supplementation are a huge industry, and growing rapidly due to the interest in taking them for a variety of reasons: rejuvenation, staying youthful, to treat ailments like arthritis, or used as insurance against eating a diet poor in nutritional quality.

There are countless nutritional supplements with a variety of health claims; some have some real benefits, while others have been found to be downright dangerous. The FDA in the U.S. and other consumer and medical governing bodies in countries around the world have their hands full trying to regulate the sale and health claims in this industry. In 1994, DSHEA or Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was set up in the U.S. to develop ways for the FDA to regulate diet supplements, and there was an independent supplement commission set up to report on label claims made on dietary supplements. Still, it remains a good idea to scrutinize supplements carefully: “buyer beware”, as new evidence comes out weekly about the health threats of some popular supplements.

Boost Your Nutrition in Food First

Ideally, you should be able to get all of your nutritional needs met in the foods you eat every day. For those of you who have an Personal Diet Plan, your diet plan was developed with that goal in mind. Your eating guidelines are balanced with a variety of food groups, and includes recommendations for increasing vegetable and fruit intake - this helps to ensure good nutritional intake overall. It also emphasizes eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables - this is really important in order to get a good intake of the many essential vitamins and minerals. 

Each food group contributes certain vitamins and minerals that may be missing or low in other food groups, so it’s also important to eat a variety of food overall. For example, low fat dairy products are an excellent source of riboflavin (an important B vitamin) and calcium. If you don’t eat dairy products, you were given specific eating guidelines that allow you to get these nutrients from other foods. So, your eating guidelines accomplishes two important things:

  • It strives for the proper balance of a diet that helps prevent “lifestyle” diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. by reducing certain foods or substances (fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar)

  • It provides the right balance of foods to provide you with good overall vitamin and mineral intake for general good health and energy, and emphasizes foods that provide additional benefits in fighting disease such as antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, etc..

To maximize the possibility of getting adequate vitamin and mineral intake from your diet:

Really focus on eating the amount of fruits and vegetables recommended - this is key. Keep a checklist for a week of the number of fruits and vegetables you eat every day. How often did you make your goal? Review the whole week. If you had a really low intake one day, it doesn’t matter as long as you make up for it another day. What matters is your average over the whole week.

Eat a variety of foods. The more narrow and limited your food choices are, the more likely it is that you will miss getting important nutrients. This is true for all of the food groups, not just fruits and vegetables.

If you eat a diet that eliminates certain foods, either because of allergies, or by choice such as eating a vegetarian diet, your chances of not getting adequate vitamin and mineral intake is increased. So, choose other foods that provide the nutrients that are in the foods you are avoiding, i.e. soy milk fortified with calcium if you don’t eat dairy products.

Beyond Diet - Should you supplement with vitamins?

Even when you follow a nutritious, balanced diet plan, if your total calorie intake is less than 1500-1600 Calories a day, the likelihood that you are going to get all of your vitamin and mineral needs met just by food alone is decreased. This is simply because your total food intake is decreased. And, even though you may be eating better foods by following your new plan, it just makes sense to supplement in this case.

There are other reasons to consider taking a vitamin and mineral supplement, whether you are on a reduced calorie plan or not:

If you have a chronic disease. In some cases, taking vitamin and mineral supplements may be helpful, in other cases, you should not take supplements. Anyone with a chronic illness or disease should discuss taking any supplement with their doctor first, despite any claims on the label!

If you take medications that cause you to lose nutrients more quickly or not absorb nutrients normally - like certain blood pressure medications, steroids, etc. Also, certain supplements can interact with drugs to boost their levels in the blood stream, and in this case, it would be dangerous to add a diet supplement! Always check with your doctor about taking specific supplements if you take medications.

Age - children and older people are at greater nutritional risk because of their growth cycle requiring different levels of nutrients and better nutrition.

Environmental conditions - extreme physical stress (lots of exercise, physical work) or emotional stress can push your body to extremes, requiring a greater level of nutrients to stay healthy. Smoking cigarettes falls into this category.

If you eliminate foods out of choice or due to food allergies, to put back the nutrients you may be missing in your diet.

In terms of supplementing your diet with vitamin/minerals for body building, fitness, anti-aging, once again, it is best to get your essential nutrients from food rather than from pills/supplements. It's pretty difficult to overload on vitamins/minerals when the sources are natural, (from whole foods) unless you really overdo it on certain foods. On the other hand, it's real easy to get out of balance with vitamin/mineral intake when you're supplementing. The relationship of one vitamin/mineral to another is very important, so taking a large amount of one particular vitamin may have consequences on the biochemical effectiveness of another, since vitamins and minerals work together in the body. This can become an issue when you take single vitamins/minerals rather than taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement with 100% of the adult requirement versus mega-dosing on particular vitamins or minerals.      

Too much of a good thing?

While it might be a good idea to take a vitamin and mineral supplement, it doesn’t mean that you should overdo it. Find a vitamin and mineral supplement that provides 100% of the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowances) for your specific age and sex. Unless you have a specific need indicated by a medical condition, and it is recommended by your health care professional, taking more vitamins or minerals can be detrimental to your health instead of helpful.

It used to be that there were only a couple types of vitamin/mineral combinations to choose from - children’s vitamins, pre-natal vitamins, and adult vitamins. Now, you can choose a variety of combinations, for both men and women, and for various life conditions - stress, age, etc., and these special combinations consider the nutritional needs at various stages of life, and the fact that men and women have a need for different vitamin and mineral intake. So, choose the one that best matches your situation.

In fact, recent recommendations by the National Academies of Science, the U.S. government top nutrition panel, focus on setting upper limits of certain nutrients because of the potential danger of taking too much of these nutrients. These are:

Vitamin A: The minimum recommended for men are 900 mg/day, and for women, it is 700 mg/day. The upper limit has been set at 3,000 mg/day. Many supplements have more than this, so read labels. Taking too much Vitamin A is associated with birth defects and liver abnormalities. Also, some labels show Vitamin A in I.U. (International Units). The recommendations are for milligrams, a different unit of measure, so you have to make sure you are reading the right measure.

Iron: New recommendations for iron are 8 mg/day for men and for post-menopausal women, 18 mg/day for pre-menopausal women, and 27 mg/day for pregnant women. The upper limit has been set at 45 mg/day. This is because accumulating high levels of iron in the body are associated with heart disease and cancer.

So, if you decide to supplement your diet, read labels to get the right amount of nutrients for your body needs, don’t overdo it, and boost your food intake first with the right amount of vegetables, fruits, and a variety of healthy foods!

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