By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor
Of all the dietary debates, none is more heated than the one surrounding the issue of supplements.
Should I take supplements? Are they safe? How much do I need? Is it worth the money?
Even if you have the time to wade through the conflicting literature surrounding supplements, it can be hard to find a straightforward answer to these questions.
Just recently, a new study surfaced saying that Omega-3 fish oil—one of the more highly-touted supplements—wasn’t effective in reducing a person’s mortality risk, or their propensity to have a heart attack or stroke. These results ran contrary to the prevailing wisdom that Omega-3s may help stave off heart disease and death.
The bottom line—most experts say—is that no pill can replace a balanced diet.
“My motto is always: food first,” says Rachel Berman, R.D., Director of Nutrition for Calorie Count, “Foods found in nature are always more nutritious because our bodies are used to processing natural food.”
A well-balanced diet is best
Dian Grisel Ph.D., co-author of the book, “TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fat Burning Metabolism, Get Lean Fast and Leave Diet and Exercise Rules in the Dust,” agrees that getting nutrients from natural sources is the way to go.
“Not only is it possible to get all the vitamins, minerals and nutrients we need from foods alone, but also this is the best way to ensure we’re getting all the nutrients we need,” she says. Even accounting for modern farming practices and soil depletion, naturally-grown fruits and vegetables outstrip artificial sources of nutrition.
What makes real food more beneficial than manufactured vitamins and minerals?
Supplements are generally made up of isolated nutrients. Each pill contains, at most, a handful of closely-related compounds.
The problem with this, according to Griesel, is that vitamins and minerals were never meant to be consumed in this manner. “In nature, they [nutrients] are packaged in a complete form and work together for our physiological benefit. Isolated and out of proper balance, they can create problems,” she says.
Replacing pills with nature
Here’s a list of four popular supplements and their real food alternatives:
Why you need it: Vitamin B12 performs a variety of functions, including: central nervous system maintenance, red blood cell production, and metabolism regulation. If you don’t get enough B12, you may suffer from constipation, loss of appetite, anemia, weakness and tiredness. Berman says that older adults need more vitamin B12 because, as a person ages, they lose their ability to effectively use the B12 found in food sources. Celiac and Crohn’s disease can also inhibit natural absorption of the vitamin.
Natural sources: Vitamin B12 is found in high concentrations in red meat and clams. Fish, eggs, poultry and milk also contain significant levels.
Potential dangers of supplementation: When it comes to B12, overdosing doesn’t present much of a concern. The vitamin is water-soluble, meaning that any excess will get flushed out of your body in your urine. However, B12 supplements may interact badly with certain kinds of medications, including: Metformin (a popular diabetes drug), proton pump inhibitors, histamines, and certain antibiotics.
Why you need it: Vitamin D helps promote good bone health by facilitating the absorption of calcium into your teeth and bones. Healthy levels of vitamin D have been linked with a decreased risk for certain cancers and a potential reduction in the symptoms of depression. Conversely, vitamin D deficiencies may increase a person’s risk for: osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and type-2 diabetes. According to Berman, people gradually lose their ability to extract vitamin D from calcium as they get older. Things that inhibit your body’s ability to absorb vitamin D include: being over age 50, dark-skinned, overweight, or lactose intolerant. If you suffer from celiac or Crohn’s disease you may have trouble metabolizing the vitamin. Certain medications (laxatives, steroids, anti-cholesterol) can also make it more difficult for you to get sufficient vitamin D.
Natural sources: Because human beings are meant to get most of their daily dose of vitamin D from the sun, it’s only found in significant quantities in a handful of foods. Salmon is a vitamin D champion—one three-ounce portion contains almost 100 percent of the recommended daily amount for seniors. Fortified foods, such as: cereals, orange juice, milk, yogurt, can also be good sources of vitamin D.
Potential dangers of supplementation: It is possible to overdose on vitamin D supplements. Complications of getting too much vitamin D may include: an elevated risk for urinary tract infections, a loss of appetite and kidney stones.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Why you need it: Omega-3 fatty acids get a lot of press, and with good reason. Research indicates that these “good fats” may lower inflammation and help a variety of ailments, including: dementia, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, and depression. There are three different kinds of Omega-3s: DHA, EPA, and ALA. The omegas found in certain kinds of fish (DHA and EPA) are thought to provide the greatest health perks. While ALA, the omega found in certain nuts and vegetables, is slightly less beneficial.
Natural sources: Salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and anchovies are all solid sources of Omega-3s. Spinach, Edamame (soy beans), walnuts and broccoli also contain beneficial levels of this fat.
Potential dangers of supplementation: If you have diabetes or are taking blood-thinning or blood pressure-lowering medications, you should be wary of Omega-3 supplements. Studies have shown that omega-3 supplements, when used in conjunction with certain medications, may increase bleeding risk and cause a person’s blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels. They may also cause blood sugar spikes that can be dangerous for diabetics.
Why you need it: Though you may have never heard of it, CoQ10 is one of the more universal substances found in the human body. Every cell has some amount of the enzyme, which is essential for cell repair and growth. It is also an antioxidant, and provides protection to both skeletal and heart muscles. According to the Mayo Clinic, age, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, and diabetes may all play a role in lowering a person’s CoQ10 levels. Statin medications can decrease the amount of CoQ10 in the body.
Natural sources: Many foods contain CoQ10, including: red meat, salmon, fresh sardines, tuna, mackerel, soybeans, soybean oil, sesame oil, peanuts, walnuts, broccoli, spinach, and whole grains. To get the biggest benefit, avoid over-cooking meat sources of CoQ10, and eat the non-meat sources raw. Heat alters the enzyme, making it less effective.
Potential dangers of supplementation: CoQ10 encourages blood clotting (a big no-no it you’re taking warfarin and other anti-coagulants), and can lower blood sugar and blood pressure to potentially dangerous levels. It may also interfere with chemotherapy treatment.
When real food isn’t enough
Supplements aren’t all bad—in certain situations they can be beneficial.
Berman and Griesel both concede that people who have a proven deficiency may gain from taking a supplement to correct it.
Age, illness, food allergies and restricted diets (vegetarian, vegan, etc.) can inhibit your body’s ability to get the vitamins and minerals it needs.
Talk to your doctor if you suspect you’re not getting all the vitamins and minerals you need from your diet. Always consult a physician before taking any new supplements.