what your body needs now
Eating lots of fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains is a great health strategy, but these supplements are critical for filling in nutrient needs nature doesn't meet
MAUREEN CALLAHAN, M.S., R.D.
If everything happened the way it's supposed to, we'd get the vitamin C we need from a big bowl of strawberries, a glass of OJ, and a plateful of broccoli every day. For the iron, there would be a juicy, sizzling steak hot off the grill, lentils, or a platter of steamed clams. But time and effort — lack of the first and not enough energy for the second — keep us from the kitchen on most nights, meaning that nabbing nutrients the natural way just isn't the reality.
The problem with not getting enough vitamins and minerals, studies show, is that missing even tiny amounts from our diets puts us at higher risk for illnesses ranging from heart disease to osteoporosis to cancer.
Solution? Supplements. No, they're not whole foods, but they add well to what Mother Nature provides. So start putting these powerhouse vitamin and mineral tablets and capsules on your daily menu — they're critical to good health.
Why take it? "I would put the multi-vitamin as top priority for women," says Harvard nutrition researcher Walter Willett, M.D. "It's a safety net." A lot of the nutrients that have been shown to protect against heart disease and cancer, such as folic acid and vitamin B12, are found in a multi. It's also a powerful tool against birth defects and iron deficiency.
How much? Look for 100 percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance for most vitamins and essential minerals. What you don't need: trace elements like boron, nickel, silicon, tin, and vanadium or special ingredients like green tea, lycopene, and coenzyme Q10. Ditto for formulas with 200 or 300 percent or more of the RDA. That's just plain overkill. Overdosing on certain vitamins contained in a multi can have adverse health effects. Much more than 3,000 micrograms of vitamin A per day, for example, has been tied to birth defects and osteoporosis.
Best to buy Any brand that sticks to 100 percent RDA across the board. Two good choices: Nature Made Essential Woman Complete Multi Vitamin/Mineral Supplement and Rainbow Light Just One Naturals Woman's One Multivitamin.
Tip Take it with food to avoid upsetting your stomach.
Calcium + Vitamin D
Why take it? Calcium strengthens bones; the vitamin D sends a message to the body to absorb the calcium.
How much? 500 to 800 milligrams of elemental calcium and 400 international units of vitamin D per day. That's in addition to the recommended RDA of 400 IUs of vitamin D that should be in your multivitamin. Together you'll hit the right number: "The optimal vitamin D intake looks like it should be at least 800 to 1,000 IUs per day," Dr. Willett estimates. He says studies show that most people have low levels of D in their blood, increasing risk for osteoporosis and fractures.
Best to buy We like Os-Cal's new lemon chiffon chewable with 500 mg calcium carbonate, the most concentrated form of calcium, and 400 IUs of D. The box says to take two a day, but if you're taking a multi and eating two servings of dairy a day, one is probably enough.
Tip Calcium is critical to preventing osteoporosis, but science shows that exercise is even more important, Dr. Willett says. "The real bottom line is that if you want to avoid fractures, forget about milk and take your cow for a walk."
Omega 3 Fats (Fish Oils)
Why take it? They may be hard to pronounce, but the fats in fish oils, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are clear winners at preventing heart disease and stroke. Moms-to-be take note: DHA is also critical raw material for in utero brain development.
How much? 1 gram per day. The capsule is going to contain a mix of EPA and DHA, but don't sweat the details. If you eat plenty of fish, though, you likely don't need this supplement: "I would recommend that women obtain omega 3 fatty acids with two meals of fish per week," says William Connor, M.D., director of the division of endocrinology, diabetes, and clinical nutrition at Oregon Health & Science University.
Best to buy We like Kirkland Signature Natural Fish Oil (Costco) because it's a good value: A recent Consumer Reports study found that generics are as safe and reliable as brands that cost up to 10 times as much.
Tip Freeze capsules and take with meals to prevent burping up that fishy flavor.
Why take it? This water-soluble vitamin may help prevent breast cancer and lower blood pressure, but at levels much higher than the current RDA of 75 mg.
How much? Some experts say 400 to 500 mg a day is the right amount to maximize blood and tissue levels of vitamin C. If you eat at least five servings, or 2.5 cups, of fruits and veggies a day, you'll easily get to about 250 mg, says Jane Higdon, Ph.D., a research associate at Oregon State University's Linus Pauling Institute. In that case, get the remaining 200 mg or so from a supplement.
Best to buy Either natural or synthetic C; your body can't tell the difference. Skip formulations with ester (an antioxidant added to increase the shelf life of certain foods and drugs) and C paired with bioflavonoids; there's little evidence they help absorption.
Tip Any more than 400 mg of C per day is a waste; your body can't use it.
Why take it? Up to 70 percent of neural tube birth defects like spina bifida or anencephaly (a fatal brain and skull condition) could be prevented if women took in just the recommended dose of folate before and during pregnancy. As for heart disease, the jury is still out. But a new Dutch study finds that taking 800 micrograms of folic acid a day can help memory and mental function in postmenopausal women.
How much? 400 micrograms. If your multi has you covered, skip the extra supplement unless you're looking for added benefits, like improved memory or possibly a lowered risk of heart disease. Be careful, though — the Food and Nutrition Board sets the upper safe limit for folate at 1,000 micrograms. Overdosing on folate can mask symptoms of a deficiency in B12, which is essential for normal nervous system function and blood cell production.
Best to buy They're all the same; synthetic folic acid is synthetic folic acid.
Tip The FDA requires all enriched grain products to be fortified with folic acid, but you'll need more to satisfy your needs.
Last updated: July 13, 2010 Issue date: November/December 2005