When to Use Dietary Supplements for Optimum Health

Many people consider vitamin and mineral supplements an easy way to get nutrients. Others take supplements as nutritional insurance. And some even use supplements as substitutes for medical drugs.

In general, nutrition experts, including the American Dietetic Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Research Council, recommend that you invest your time and money whipping up meals and snacks that supply the nutrients you need in a balanced, tasty diet.

If you never get to eat a full, balanced meal, you may benefit from supplements regardless of your age.

In 2002, the American Medical Association (AMA), which for decades had turned thumbs down on vitamin supplements, changed its collective mind. Robert H. Fletcher and Kathleen M. Fairfield, the Harvard-based authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), said, suboptimal vitamin levels are a real problem.

Hence the updated AMA rule: “It’s prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements.” And here are some special circumstances that definitely warrant taking supplements:

  • Digestive illnesses, unfriendly drugs, injury, and chronic illness: Disorders and diseases of the digestive organs (liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and intestines) interfere with the normal digestion of food and the absorption of nutrients. Some medicines may also interfere with normal digestion, meaning you need supplements to make up the difference.

    People who suffer from certain chronic diseases, who have suffered a major injury (such as a serious burn), or who have just been through surgery may need more nutrients than they can get from food. In these cases, a doctor may prescribe supplements to provide the hard-to-get vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

  • Vegetarianism: Vitamin B12 is found only in food from animals, such as meat, milk, and eggs. (Some seaweed does have B12, but the suspicion is that the vitamin comes from microorganisms living in the plant.) Without these foods, vegans almost certainly have to get their vitamin B12 from supplements or fortified foods.

  • Protecting against disease: Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center found that people taking a daily multivitamin for more than ten years were 50 percent less likely to develop colon cancer. In addition, selenium supplements seem to reduce the risk of prostate cancer, and vitamin C seems to lower the risk of cataracts.

  • Supplementing aging appetites: As you grow older, your appetite may decline and your sense of taste and smell may falter. If food no longer tastes as good as it once did, or if dentures make chewing difficult, you may not be taking in all the foods that you need to get the nutrients you require.

  • Before menopause: Women, who lose iron each month through menstrual bleeding, rarely get sufficient amounts of iron from a typical American diet providing fewer than 2,000 calories a day.

  • During pregnancy and lactation: Women who are pregnant or nursing often need supplements to provide the nutrients they need to build new maternal and fetal tissue or to produce nutritious breast milk. In addition, supplements of the B vitamin folate decrease a woman’s risk of giving birth to a child with a neural tube defect.

  • Through adulthood: To get the calcium they require, women older than 19 need to drink four 8-ounce glasses of nonfat skim milk a day, eat three 8-ounce containers of yogurt made with nonfat milk, or 22 ounces of canned salmon. Performing this nutritional balancing act every single day may be unrealistic. The simple alternative is calcium supplements.

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