Everyday it seems like a new product pops up on store shelves that promises to give you more energy, less pain, or even guarantee a longer life. You may have seen these products or heard from family members about how well they work and wondered if you should take them. But are they worth the money, safe or even needed?
Understanding Dietary Supplements
Dietary supplements are substances that might contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, fiber or other plant chemicals. People take dietary supplements to add nutrients to their diet or to lower the risk of health problems like osteoporosis.
In order to understand the role (if any), of dietary supplements, it’s important to understand what vitamins and minerals are and why you need them to stay healthy. Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients, which means your body cannot manufacture them but needs them to survive and thrive. They have different functions in the body such as boosting immunity to fight infections, keeping your nerves, bones and cells healthy; and helping your body get energy from food.
The Best Way to Ensure You Get Essential Nutrients
Reading the word “essential” may have you worried about the potential of not getting enough. Rest assured that if you follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans you are likely getting all the nutrients your body needs. However there are certain circumstances in which taking additional vitamins and minerals may be needed- more on that coming up.
Eating a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean protein sources including fish and seafood, as well as low-fat dairy foods is the best way to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need. Moreover, eating real food has other advantages over pills such as:
- Providing a mix of nutrients that help each other get absorbed more easily. For example, fats help you absorb certain vitamins better such as eating a green salad with some olive oil-based dressing.
- Nutrient-dense foods contain other important substances such as phytochemical, antioxidants, and fiber that cannot possibly be included in one pill (or several pills for that matter).
- The scientific evidence is not conclusive in regards to the effectiveness of antioxidant supplements. It seems that the benefits associated with antioxidants found in food (protective substances that slow down a natural process leading to cell and tissue damage) is not replicated by supplements. Additionally, some high-dose antioxidant supplements have been linked to health risks.
Vitamins and Minerals for People Over 50
People aged 50 and over do need more of certain vitamins and minerals than younger adults. Your doctor or a dietitian can help you figure out if you need to change your diet to ensure adequate amount or if you need to use a supplement, especially for the following nutrients:
- Calcium is a mineral that is necessary for strong bones and teeth, so there are special recommendations for older adults who are at risk for bone loss. People who consume at least 3 portions of dairy foods daily should get enough. Other sources include some forms of tofu, dark-green leafy vegetables, soybeans, canned sardines and salmon with bones, and calcium-fortified foods.
- Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin” because the body makes it from sun exposure. In Vermont, it can be difficult to get enough sunshine to meet your needs. Vitamin D works in conjunction with calcium to promote bone health and strength. Good sources include fatty fish, fish liver oils, fortified milk and milk products, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin B12 absorption can decrease as you get older. A deficiency may occur even if you consume enough through food. Vitamin B12 helps keep blood cells and nerves in tip top shape. Good sources include meat, fish, poultry, milk, and fortified breakfast cereal.
- Magnesium plays a part in many body processes like glucose and blood pressure regulation. It is found in dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains and fortified breakfast cereals.
The Bottom Line
If you’re considering taking a dietary supplement, consult with your doctor first. Some supplements may affect the way your medications work. They can make them more or less potent. Your doctor may advise you to take a supplement if you suffer from a certain medical condition or follow a restricted diet because of allergies for instance.
It’s important to realize that unlike prescription and over-the-counter medications that are closely monitored for safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dietary supplements do not have that level of scrutiny. On the contrary, the FDA does not regularly test what is in dietary supplements, and companies do not have to share information on the safety of a dietary supplement with the FDA before they sell it. The manufacturers are responsible for the safety of their products, and the FDA does not evaluate it before the product is sold. Further, the FDA does not check whether claims made on supplement packages are accurate. Which means when you buy a dietary supplement that promises to give you more energy, you are taking the manufacturer’s word for it. Put differently, the supplements on store shelves are not necessarily safe, may not do what the package says they do, and may not contain what the label says they contain.
Remember food first! Getting a variety of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes; low-fat milk and dairy foods; whole grains, lean meat, poultry, fish and seafood is your best bet for getting the nutrients you need.
Brigitte Harton is a consultant Registered Dietitian at Age Well and a Board Certified Wellness Coach. For more information about the services Age Well provide such as community meals and Meals on Wheel, call the Helpline at 800-642-5119 or visit AgewellVT.org.