Blumberg, like many others, recommends choosing a multivitamin containing moderate dosages of nutrients, between 100 and 200 percent of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Dietary Reference Intake levels. Avoid pills that have high amounts of single nutrients. Irwin Rosenberg, a Tufts University scientist who helped set these levels, cautions against taking too much of vitamins A and D, which can accumulate in the body and become toxic, leading to liver damage. He also says to watch out for excessive minerals, many of which can be harmful in high doses.
In addition, says Victoria Maizes, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, avoid any supplement that contains pre-formed vitamin A, which appears only in food from animal sources and can be harmful in high doses. Read labels carefully, she says, and choose a pill that contains mixed carotenoids, compounds found in colorful fruits and vegetables that are formed into vitamin A in the body. Carotenoids have additional antioxidant effects and no risk of toxicity. Also, check what type of vitamin E is in the pill; the best is natural mixed tocopherols, which are absorbed more efficiently. Finally, it’s a good idea to choose a pill designed for your gender and age, as nutrient needs vary. Women of childbearing age, for example, need to make sure they’re getting enough iron, so multivitamins for women typically have more iron. Older people have different requirements as well, and in general need more vitamin D and vitamin B12.
Calcium, vitamin D and magnesium
Since calcium, which helps protect bones, is a bulky molecule, most multivitamins don’t have more than about 10 percent of the daily requirement, says Blumberg, so an additional pill is a good idea. Your body can’t fully assimilate calcium without vitamin D and magnesium, so if you decide to take a supplement, choose one that includes all three.
Bone health is affected by protein-rich foods and excessive sweets, which disrupt the acid/alkaline balance in our bodies. “The body doesn’t want blood to be acidic,” says Amy Lanou, a nutrition scientist at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and author of Building Bone Vitality, “so it pulls calcium compounds from bones to neutralize acidity.” This contributes to the high rate of bone fractures and osteoporosis among the elderly. To protect your bones, Lanou recommends eating more alkalinizing foods beans, whole grains and vegetables.
Taking vitamin D alone, or with calcium, may decrease the risk of some cancers, yet many of us don’t get enough vitamin D. The vitamin doesn’t appear in most foods; the primary way we get it is through our skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. To ensure enough vitamin D, many experts now recommend about 20 minutes a day of sun, without sunblock, or a supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Essential fatty acids found in vegetable and animal fats are important building blocks for cells and regulate many of the body’s functions. Evidence is mounting that the typical modern diet, which is high in animal fats and vegetable oils, overemphasizes omega-6 fatty acids, which can cause inflammation. They also deliver too few of the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids found in green plants, certain nuts and seeds, fatty fish and fats from animals that graze on grass.
To combat this problem, experts recommend increasing omega-3 intake with a fish oil supplement. David Servan-Schreiber, a physician and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as well as author of Anticancer: A New Way of Life, says having the right balance of essential fatty acids can reduce the body’s inflammatory response and protect against illness. “All the chronic degenerative diseases stem from a high level of inflammation in the body,” he says.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that most Americans get about 10 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s; other estimates suggest that number may be as high as 25 times more. The NIH has determined that adequate consumption of omega-3s can protect against heart disease, and the American Heart Association recommends the supplement for heart disease patients. Other research suggests omega-3s may also protect against cancer, bone disease and mood disorders, including depression, and support brain health as we age.
One reason many of us may have an omega imbalance is that the meat, dairy and eggs we typically consume are from animals raised on corn and soy. Corn and soy are high in omega-6 fatty acids, while grass is rich in omega-3s. Most packaged sweets and snacks contain soy oil high in omega-6s. To get a better omega balance, choose grass-fed sources for animal products and eat fewer packaged snacks, fried foods and cheap vegetable oils, such as salad dressings made with corn or soy oil. And eat more fish, beans, tofu, flax seeds and walnuts.
Yale nutrition researcher Katz recommends taking supplements made from dehydrated whole fruits and vegetables. Whole foods supplements contain more of what you’d find in the plant, so they’re more likely to deliver the best antioxidant benefit, since isolated compounds tend to have fewer antioxidants than whole foods. Experts suggest avoiding ingredients such as dyes, synthetic sweeteners, flavorings and preservatives.
Another point to consider, particularly regarding multivitamins, is whether you have the discipline to take more than one pill a day. One-a-day pills usually contain isolated nutrients. Some supplements are formulated with extra food-based ingredients and these need to be taken several times a day to get the suggested amount of nutrients. But they may also have added benefits. “The food-grown stuff is closer to food and lower in potency and is very well absorbed,” says Don Summerfield, co-founder of Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacies, a chain of natural medicine stores based in Boulder, Colorado.
Supplements can come in either tablet or capsule form or as a liquid. There’s no real difference, according to Katz, unless the tablet is poorly formulated and doesn’t break down well in the digestive tract. If you’re not sure about quality, ConsumerLab independently tests supplements to verify that they contain the alleged ingredients and are free of toxins.
But all experts agree good health isn’t simply a matter of popping pills. “The basic principle is that supplements are not substitutes,” says Tuft University’s Blumberg. “You can’t eat a terrible diet and take supplements and think you are okay.”
“While it is possible to obtain sufficient amounts of important nutrients through a healthy diet, it is nonetheless difficult,” concludes Weil. “Improving your diet will certainly contribute to your health, but getting a consistent level of nutrient intake through diet alone is a challenge, one best met through appropriate supplementation.”
Carmel Wroth has sworn to give up junk food, but can still sometimes be found nervously clutching a soft drink.
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