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November 1, 2011

Should You Take Dietary Supplements?

The Hood Answer Mom, Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Dietary supplements have been in the news a lot lately, so you may be confused about whether they're worth taking. The answer is yes, and no.

A recent study in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who took multivitamins or individual supplements, such as folic acid, vitamin B6, magnesium, iron, and copper, died earlier than those who didn't take supplements.

Another report, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said that men who downed high doses of vitamin E in pill form for five years had a greater risk of developing prostate cancer. 

The vitamin E study is in line with what we know about taking large amounts of single nutrients: They often offer no benefits, and sometimes, do harm. For example, past studies have shown that current and former smokers should avoid high levels of beta-carotene or vitamin A in supplement form because of an increased lung cancer risk.
However, it's important to remember that the conclusion of a single study is rarely, if ever, the final word on the matter, so you may be hearing more about vitamin E's potential benefits.

The only single supplement my family and I take is vitamin D. We live in the northern part of the country, where risk of  vitamin D deficiency risk runs high.  Strong UV rays initiate vitamin D production in the skin, but the sun isn't strong enough to help us make vitamin D for six months a year. 

With the exception of fortified foods, such as Hood Milk and Simply Smart Milk , food is a poor source of vitamin D.  An 8-ounce glass of fortified milk supplies about 100 International Units (IU) of vitamin D. Yet, drinking the recommended three glasses every day provides only half of the vitamin D that everyone over the age of one needs, which is 600 IU daily.

The multivitamin study, while worthy of consideration, hasn't stopped me from taking a multivitamin and giving one to my kids and husband, too. The study was observational, and, therefore, not conclusive. While it provides the basis for further studies, it's not possible to show cause and effect in an observational study. That means you can't say for certain that multivitamins cause early death in women.

As a dietitian, I favor food over dietary supplements, which are just what their name implies. Vitamin and mineral pills cannot fix what's wrong with your diet, but they can fill in small nutrient gaps. On balance, they're probably a good idea for most of us.

Don't go overboard with multivitamins or any other dietary supplement. It's reasonable to opt for a multivitamin with about 100% or less of the Daily Value for the nutrients it provides, especially if you're a woman in your childbearing years or you're over 50 (male and female).  You and your family may need additional vitamin D, too. 


Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is a writer, nutrition consultant, and mother of three. She is the author of several books, including MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better and Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, & After Pregnancy . Ward is also a contributing writer for Muscle & Fitness Hers and Men's Fitness magazines.

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