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Lynn Little

DEC 26

December 27, 2001

Do you need a nutritional supplement?

By Lynn Little


An estimated half of Americans now take some kind of nutritional supplement.

The term "nutritional supplement" encompasses a wide range of products with multivitamin/mineral supplements the most commonly used.

People cite a variety of reasons for taking supplements, ranging from those that are medically necessary to "popping a couple of pills" as an easier alternative to practicing healthy eating habits.

While supplements are beneficial under some circumstances, they are not recommended simply as an alternative to a nutritious diet.

Also, studies show that people often take supplements for nutrients they're already consuming in adequate amounts yet sometimes miss supplementing the nutrients they need. If you use or are considering a supplement, here are several factors to consider.

Recent government nutrition recommendations suggest that for some people, particularly those over age 50, taking a daily multi-vitamin supplement or consuming a fortified cereal that includes vitamins B-12 and D in easily absorbable forms can be useful, particularly if you don't consume a quart of milk daily.

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The supplemental amount of vitamin B-12 recommended daily for those over 50 is 2.4 micrograms (mcg) or 40 percent of the daily value, and 400 international units (IU) or 100 percent daily value of vitamin D. Those over age 70 need a total of 600 IU of vitamin D (150 percent of daily value) either through foods or supplements.

Many supplements supply variable amounts of vitamins and minerals. A supplement with 25 to 100 percent of the daily value for zinc and magnesium is reasonable for many people. But iron is a little more complicated.

According to the most recent government recommendations, premenopausal women may need extra iron since they often don't get what they need from food, particularly if they're vegetarians. However, more iron than you need may not be a good thing. Therefore, it's generally recommended that men and postmenopausal women choose supplements without iron, or those with no more than 10 milligrams (mg) per day.

Multi-vitamin/mineral supplements can help with calcium needs, but the effects are minimal because most contain only 100 to 200 mg, equal to just 2 to 5 ounces of milk. If you need extra calcium, consider calcium-fortified juices, cereals or other foods, or a separate calcium supplement.

Don't buy what you don't need. Some "stress" or "mega" vitamins supply well beyond 100 percent of the daily value for many B vitamins. Most people get what they need of these vitamins from their diet anyway, and there is no evidence that extra amounts provide any additional benefits.

Also, beware of vitamin/mineral supplements that provide large amounts of minerals that don't appear to be lacking in anyone's diet like molybdenum, boron, nickel and silicon.

Too much of one mineral can interfere with the absorption of other minerals you may need.

Finally, don't overestimate what a supplement can do. Researchers emphasize that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables are due to much more than vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables contain different types of health-promoting dietary fiber and a wide range of phytochemicals that promote good health in a variety of ways that supplements just can't duplicate. That's why following a healthful eating plan, such as the one outlined by the Food Guide Pyramid, is so important. There simply is no substitute for the nutritional benefits of food.

Before you begin taking supplements, ask your doctor or a registered dietitian to evaluate your eating habits, recommend beneficial changes, and determine whether a supplement is appropriate for you.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

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