If you’re like more than half of Americans you pop some kind of supplement every day. But are dietary supplements necessary - or even wise? Ask many nutrition experts and they’ll tell you that if you have a healthy, well-rounded diet there’s no need to get your nutrition from a pill.
And while this is mostly true, there are a few exceptions. Here’s the scoop on 4 nutrients you might be missing out on:
Iron: When we eat plant foods like fruits, vegetables and grains our bodies don’t absorb their iron as efficiently as the iron from meat, chicken and fish. For most of us this isn’t a problem. But if you’re a strict vegetarian or a vegan you could be coming up short in the iron department, leaving you feeling tired and listless. This is especially true if you’re a woman between the ages of 19 and 50 since your iron needs are more than double those of men or older women.
This all-important mineral may also be an issue if you suffer from restless leg syndrome (also known as RLS), which sometimes improves with iron supplementation. If you’re battling RLS, speak to your doctor to find out if a supplement can help.
Vitamin D: Lately, vitamin D has been credited with preventing everything from osteoporosis to autoimmune diseases to cancer. (Yet, unlike most other nutrients, D is naturally found in very few foods. It’s also unique in that we can manufacture our own supply when we soak up the sun’s rays. However, most of us don’t spend enough time in the sun to make all the D we need. So, a supplement often makes smart sense. While the Institute of Medicine recommends 600 IU a day (800 IU if you’re over age 70), many health professionals believe we need between 1,000 to 2,000 IU, depending on your level of sun exposure. If you do choose to supplement make sure yours is the active form, vitamin D3.
Vitamin B12: Anywhere from 10-15% of people over age 60 are vitamin B12 deficient. That’s because our stomachs produce less acid as we age. While that might sound like a good thing, sufficient stomach acid is critical for optimal B12 digestion. And that’s not all. If you down antacids everyday to remedy reflux or heartburn, you may also be a candidate for B12 deficiency. That can put you at risk for anemia, neurological problems and memory loss. If you fall into either of these categories the amount of B12 in a senior formula vitamin should cover your bases, but be sure to have your B12 levels checked annually too.
Fish oil: In a perfect world we’d all eat 2 weekly servings of fatty fish to supply the long chain omega-3 fats we need to keep our hearts healthy. In the real world, not so much. For many of us, fish oil supplements seemed like the answer until a Journal of the American Medical Association review of 20 studies came out earlier this year, finding that fish oil pills only provide a small benefit when it comes to preventing heart attacks and heart disease-related deaths. Right now, the American Heart Association says that a few weekly fish meals are still the best way to get your omega-3s. However, if you have heart disease and aren’t exactly a fish fan, a fish oil supplement is still better than nothing.
Bottom line: There are instances where strategic supplementation makes sense. But in the end, no pill can ever take the place of a healthy diet.
Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. is a nutrition consultant, journalist and author specializing in nutrition. She is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a contributing editor for Woman’s Day magazine. Her work has been published in magazines such as Cooking Light, EatingWell, Prevention, Fitness, Women’s Health, Woman’s Day and Oprah.