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Dr. Linda Lee
Nutrition

Should You Take Vitamins and Supplements?
by Linda Lee

Taking a multivitamin every day might seem like an attractive way to meet your daily nutrient requirements, especially if you don’t eat the healthiest of diets. Some people have told me they take a multivitamin because they believe our modern, genetically engineered, pesticide-exposed foods lack the nutrients once found in ancient foods. I’m not entirely convinced of this, however, since we modern-day humans clearly live longer and grow taller than our paleolithic ancestors!

It turns out that more than 50 percent of Americans use a multivitamin, mostly to improve or maintain overall good health. But despite their popularity and availability, there are actually no studies that prove taking a multivitamin every day is helpful. (The good news is that taking one is probably not harmful either.)

So, taking a daily multivitamin doesn’t seem to reduce death from cancer or heart disease in adults, nor does it increase the IQs of healthy children (so much for those Flintstones). However, from recent research, it was found that healthy adults who take a daily multivitamin do report a greater sense of wellbeing compared to those who take a placebo. The reasons for this are still unknown, but nevertheless intriguing.

When it comes to the most popular supplements among U.S. adults, multivitamins are closely followed by calcium supplements and fish-oil supplements, and here research findings do suggest some possible benefits. Getting a total of 1,200 mg of calcium a day either in the diet or with supplements has been associated with reduced risk for colorectal cancer and is helpful in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. And yet, in contrast to these encouraging findings, the use of calcium supplements recently came under scrutiny when last year’s National Institutes of Health (NIH)–AARP Diet and Health Study found an increased risk of deaths from heart disease in men, but not in women, who used daily calcium supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and fish-oil, decrease serum triglyceride levels and are beneficial both to the hearts of healthy people and to those who have had heart attacks. The ideal amount of omega-3 to take, however, is currently unknown. But benefits to the heart have been seen when EPA+DHA supplemental doses ranging from 0.5 grams per deciliter of blood (g/d) to 1.8 g/d have been used in those who have had heart disease.

Vitamin D is another supplement that has gotten a lot of press lately, because more than 50 percent of adults in the U.S. have lower than normal levels. Vitamin D works to increase calcium absorption from your gut, but also has beneficial effects on muscle, breast, and colon tissues. Our skin produces the active form of vitamin D when it is exposed to UV rays in sunlight. But so many of us spend so much time indoors—or have been scared by our dermatologists into wearing sunblock every day, which interferes with vitamin D production—that our bodies are producing far less of this vitamin. And since vitamin D is not found in many foods, it makes sense to take a supplement with up to 1,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily if your levels are low.

Using certain supplements for disease prevention and health promotion is attractive, even though their effectiveness in many cases is debatable. But one thing is for sure: taking a vitamin or supplement in no way beats eating a healthy diet.

It certainly makes no sense to take a supplement if you are eating fast food every day; it would be best if you simply ate a healthier diet!

If you are concerned about heart disease, rather than taking omega-3 fatty acids as a supplement, consider instead eating at least two servings of a flaky fish each week. Salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are all high in omega-3 fatty acids. They also are high in vitamin D, and calcium.

IIf you can’t eat fish as often as you would like, you might try eating foods containing another healthful fatty acid called α-linolenic acid, which is found in flaxseed and walnuts—as well as in canola, soybean and flaxseed oils). A diet that is mostly plant-based, and is rich in whole vegetables and fruits, is ideal.

Trust your gut to extract the exact nutrients your body needs, provided you feed it the right foods.

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