Vitamins and Supplements Don’ts
Vitamins and supplements are supposed to strengthen our bones, boost our memory, protect our heart, and help us stay healthy. And 74 percent of American women take them. The problem is some might be a big waste of money, or worse.
A large study published in October suggested that several could be doing more harm than good. After tracking almost 39,000 postmenopausal women for 22 years, it found that women who took multivitamins, vitamin B6, folic acid, iron, magnesium, zinc, or copper had a higher risk of death. Yes, death!
That said, some vitamins and supplements make sense. Women need extra folic acid to help prevent miscarriage and birth defects, for example. And older people can benefit from calcium and vitamin D. But just as important as vitamin do’s are the don’ts that you need to know based on the latest research.
Don’t bother with “Custom” Pills
A recent trend in supplements promises to deliver exactly what your unique body needs: Answer a bunch of questions about your eating habits, sleep patterns, alcohol intake, and workout routine, for example. (A few companies even send in-home urine-test kits to identify “metabolic markers” that they claim will reveal your particular biochemistry). Then the manufacturer calculates your nutritional “needs” and sells you a personalized regimen of “nutraceuticals” (at a hefty price). It’s true that individuals need different amounts of vitamins, minerals, fats, carbs, and proteins, and those variations have ties to our genes. But popping “customized” vitamins and supplements isn’t the answer. The science needs to catch up. For now, stick with recommendations from your doctor.
Don’t swallow pills instead of veggies
The marketing for Centrum’s new ProNutrients Fruit & Veggie says the pill “harnesses the power equal to one serving of a blend of fruits and vegetables”. But it also states that the product “is not intended to replace your daily intake of fruit and vegetables”. No pill can replicate all of the benefits of produce. Researchers don’t know exactly why, but evidence suggests that stripping the nutrient form the food source reduces its good effects. Bottom line: Eat produce, not pills!
Don’t overpay for vitamins – but don’t skimp, either
We tested store brand multivitamins, such as Costco’s Kirkland Signature, Walmart’s Equate Complete Multivitamin, Target’s Up and Up Advanced Formula, and CVS’s Spectravite Advanced Formula, for content and to see how well they dissolved. They did as well as pricier name brands, like Centrum and One-a-Day Maximum. All contained the amounts of vitamins that their labels claimed, none had harmful heavy-metal contaminants, and most dissolved properly. But samples of Rite Aid’s Whole Source Mature Adult and The Vitamin Shoppe’s One Daily didn’t break down adequately and didn’t contain the amounts of some vitamins and minerals listed on the label. Dollar-store vitamins had the same problems. So if your doc recommends a multi, don’t shop at the dollar store.
Don’t take extra vitamin A
This vitamin is important for your vision and also helps regulate cell division, build bone, and fight infections. But taking too much can weaken bones and lead to birth defects, liver damage, and central nervous system disorders. And there’s some evidence that it can impair vitamin D absorption – already a problem for many adults. The Institute of Medicine recommends that healthy adults skip supplemental vitamin A. If you take a multi that contains vitamin A, make sure it doesn’t include more than 2,500 IU from preformed vitamin A, which is derived from animal sources, sometimes called vitamin A acetate or vitamin A palmitate on labels.
Don’t take dangerous supplements
Harmful ingredients have been found in many supplements, especially in formulas that claim to boost weight loss, enhance your sex life, or increase muscle mass. And in a 2010 investigation, 12 supplements that you should steer clear of: aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe.
Don’t mix pills that can lead to bad reactions
Supplements can be dangerous when combined with prescription drugs. Vitamin C, for example, has been shown to reduce the power of many chemotherapy drugs. St. John’s wort can interfere with some birth control, seizure medication, blood thinners, and antidepressants, for example. And if you take the blood thinner warfarin (brand name Coumadin), you should avoid a long list of popular supplements, including ginkgo, ginseng, saw palmetto, and St. John’s wort. So if you’re taking any meds, talk with your doctor before you buy any supplements. And if you’re healthy, tell your doctor about any supplements you’re taking if he prescribes any drugs.
Don’t overdose. (It’s easier than you think)
Megadoses of certain vitamins and minerals unless under medical supervision aren’t a very good idea. High doses of vitamin E taken over a long period of time have been linked to a small but increased risk of lung cancer. Very high levels of vitamin D can cause kidney and tissue damage, and too much calcium can lead to kidney stones. Fish oil may reduce the risk of stroke, but too much may increase the risk. And an overdose of iron can damage organ function, and if left untreated, lead to death. One easy way to overdo it is to take a multi on top of individual vitamins and mineral pills and/or nutrient-packed drinks. Our advice: Tally the milligrams of each nutrient you take and go over them with your doctor. Also, if she says you need more of a specific nutrient, ask about the best method and dose. A single vitamin or mineral pill might be all you need.
Don’t assume all supplements are safe
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t generally verify claims made by supplement manufacturers before products reach the market, and federal law doesn’t require dietary supplements to be tested for safety or efficacy. We recently tested 15 top-selling brands of fish oil supplements and found that while none contained high levels of the bad-for-you polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), some had total PCBs that could require warning labels under California’s Proposition 5, a strict consumer right-to-know law. PCBs have a history of adverse health effects. Our advice: Look for the USP-Verified mark, which means that the raw ingredients and finished products have met the U.S. Pharmacopeia’s high standards. Go to www.usp.org for a list of brands.
Don’t bother taking a multi
Evidence shows that they don’t do much for the average person’s health, so if your doc recommends taking one, ask why. A 2011 study of 182,000 people found that taking multis didn’t cut the risk of death from cancer, cardiovascular disease, or any other health-related cause of death, or your risk of getting cancer. To get the nutrients you need, eat them. Go for vitamin-and mineral-packed legumes, nuts, low-fat diary, dark-green leafy vegetables, whole grains, citrus fruits, and berries.
Don’t totally give up on vitamins and supplements
Some are worth considering. Ask your doctor about:
- Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil. Take enough and they can lower triglycerides, an artery-clogging fat in the blood. They can also raise HDL (good) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and reduce inflammation.
- Calcium. It doesn’t just promote bone health; it could reduce some PMS symptoms. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends 1,200 mg of calcium a day. Take it with vitamin D.
- Probiotics. They can help prevent diarrhea, especially while taking antibiotics, and possibly reduce the severity of pain and bloating if you’re suffering from IBS.
- Glucosamine sulfate. Derived from shellfish, this supplement may reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis in the knees.
- Vitamin D. It helps prevent osteoporosis when taken with calcium. Also, emerging research shows that it may help treat psoriasis and might even help prevent colon cancer, although more research is needed.
- Folic acid. It benefits women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
What about the men in your life?
Just like women, men have unique nutritional deficiencies and many take supplements regularly. But some guys tend to skip leafy green vegetables and fruits, missing out on powerful antioxidants that have been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases. Here are some guy-specific don’ts:
- Don’t take megadoses. A 10-year study followed more than 14,000 men, ages 50 and older, who took 400 IU of vitamin E every other day and 500 mg of vitamin C daily – both less than the upper limit but more than the Recommended Daily Allowance. The supplements didn’t reduce the risk of major cardiovascular events, and vitamin E was linked to an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke, caused by a burst blood vessel. Another recent large study of more than 35,000 men found that high-dose selenium had little effect on prostate-cancer risk, despite earlier research that selenium might help protect men. Worse still, vitamin E increased the risk by 17 percent, though researchers couldn’t explain why.
- Don’t ignore calcium. Men need calcium to protect their bones, just like women. They should aim for 1,000 mg a day from their diet, 1,200 mg starting at age 71. But don’t overindulge. More than 2,000 mg of calcium a day has been linked to a risk of prostate cancer.
- Don’t forget vitamin D. Until men turn 71, they need 600 IU of D daily; older men should get 800 IU. Vitamin D also promotes calcium absorption in the gut.
And don’t’ forget about the kids!
Just when they need the most nutrition pound for pound, kids often refuse even to taste anything other than mac ‘n’ cheese. But don’t panic and load them up with vitamins; chances are your child is getting most nutrients he needs, even if he’s a picky eater. Here are some more don’ts for kids:
- Don’t ignore an iron deficiency. If your child is deficient in any one area, it’s probably iron. Children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years and teenage girls, especially athletes, tend to be more susceptible. If you notice your child seems less active than usual or starts having trouble learning, the pediatrician can test for deficiency.
- Don’t overlook vitamin D. In 2008 the American Academy of Pediatrics doubled the amount of vitamin D it recommends for infants, children, and adolescents to 400 IU. The Institute of Medicine recommends 600 IU daily for children ages 1 and up. That’s significant: Your child gulps about 120 IU in 1 cup of fortified milk. Breastfed babies are less likely to get enough vitamin D, but deficiency can happen at any age, so ask your child’s doctor what’s best.
- Don’t think omega-3s are just for grown-ups. Your child’s brain loves these fatty acids, which help keep synapses firing and cell membranes fluid. Preliminary research suggests that taking fish oil seems to improve thing skills and behavior in 8- to 12-year-old kids with ADHD. So feed your child fish regularly and ask the doc whether a supplement makes sense.