Should you take a vitamin and mineral supplement? This is a very important question to ask. The right supplement can provide strong health protection and prolong life. The wrong supplement can cause significant harm, even death. Here’s what you need to know:
There Is No Magic Bullet
There is no pill that can replace the magic of a healthy, balanced diet when it comes to your well-being. Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts contain an intricate mix of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, along with literally hundreds of beneficial plant compounds – all of which interact in this incredible dance of health-protection and disease prevention. There is no pill that knows this dance and there never will be. Your primary focus should always be on food – good, wholesome, healthy food!
Deficiency Has Consequences
What if, however, you’re not optimizing your nutritional intake through diet? What if you’re not eating the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein? Research says very few people are. A recent study by the NDP Group in the U.S. looked at how often the average consumer meets at least 70% of the recommended dietary guidelines. The results were dismal. Success was achieved only 2% of the time or 7 days out of the whole year!!! This is not good news. Researchers are now finding that even mild deficiencies of some nutrients, over time, can damage cells and may increase the risk of cancer and heart disease, as well as compromise the health of the immune system and brain. While there is no question that people need to put far more effort into eating a nutritious and balanced diet, we can’t ignore the fact that for many people a supplement may be beneficial too.
Too Much Of A Good Thing
Taking a supplement, however, is very risky business. The American Heart Association says “almost any nutrient can be potentially toxic if consumed in large quantities over a long time.” Taking high amounts of individual nutrients, especially in isolation appears to be especially dangerous. High doses of vitamin A have been linked to birth defects and weaker bones. Extra beta-carotene, selenium, folic acid and vitamin E have all been associated with an increased risk of some cancers. Your risk of cataracts may go up with too much Vitamin C or E. Calcium in excess has been linked to kidney stones, as well as heart attacks and strokes. Too much iron is particularly toxic. It can damage organs and cells and increase your risk of many chronic diseases. Bottom line, supplements must be approached with caution! They are not to be played with. Not if you care about your health.
A Multi Makes Sense
Other than vitamin D and fish oil (both of which I have discussed previously), the only supplement I recommend at this time is a multivitamin and possibly calcium (only if you are unable to meet calcium needs through food and only enough to make up for dietary shortfalls). I believe a multivitamin is the safest way to make sure nutritional needs are covered without causing unnecessary harm. Some researchers even suggest taking a multivitamin every other day just to minimize the risk of excess nutrients of any kind. This too is a viable option. It is also recommended that if you take a multivitamin, you should minimize your intake of heavily fortified foods. Some cereals, drinks and energy bars, for example, contain significant amounts of added vitamins and minerals. You don’t want to get more nutrients than you need in this way.
What To Look For In a Multivitamin
With so many kinds of multivitamins to choose from, how do you choose wisely? Consumer Reports tested 21 different brands and found that all but one met label claims for key nutrients, none contained worrisome levels of contaminants and most passed the dissolution test (which shows they dissolve properly in your body). Store brands or generic brands, like Costco’s Kirkland Signature, tested just as well as the national brands, at a much lower price. I think as long as you stick with well-known, bigger brands (including store brands) you should be fine.
Buying a multivitamin designed for your gender and age, such as silver formulas for the senior years, is also good advice. Women, for example, need very different amounts of iron prior to menopause, during pregnancy and then again, after menopause. Too much or too little iron can be harmful to health. You can always compare your multivitamin to the recommended nutrient intakes for your age as set out by the Institute of Medicine. Try to choose a formula that is close to what you really need.
Populations At Risk
Some people need a multivitamin more than others. Vegetarians often don’t get enough nutrients from food, including vitamin B12 and iron. Vitamin B12 is also an issue for people age 50 and above, as they may no longer have enough stomach acid to extract it from food. In fact, for most people, the older we get, the more challenging it is to meet overall nutrient needs. Lastly, women who are trying to get pregnant (or those who could get pregnant) should take a multivitamin to ensure they are getting adequate folic acid. This vitamin when taken in the first few weeks of the pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant, plays a significant role in the prevention of neural tube defects (defects in the brain and spinal cord of the child).
No pill will ever replace food for health and the prevention of disease. Most people, however, do not meet nutrient needs through diet. A multivitamin is the safest way to supplement the diet and to make sure all of your nutrient needs are met.