by Karen Appold
Nutritional supplements should be used, as the name implies, to supplement or add to an already nutritious diet.
“Supplements should not be used in place of food or a healthy diet,” said Kim Larson, RDN, CD, CSSD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, and founder, Total Health, Seattle, Washington. “They may be needed if you have certain medical conditions (e.g., celiac disease, which causes malabsorption of several key nutrients including iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, vitamins A, D, E and K and some B vitamins) or if someone can’t, doesn’t like, or is unable to consume regular, balanced meals that include fruit, vegetables, protein, dairy, and whole grains.”
Having a disease isn’t the only reason to take supplements. Women who are trying to get pregnant or who are pregnant should be sure to eat a nutritious diet and consume folic acid and iron daily to ensure a healthy pregnancy.
“Folic acid prevents birth defects, such as cystic fibrosis,” Larson said. “A pre-natal vitamin is recommended to accomplish this goal.”
As you age, it’s important to consume enough calcium and vitamin D (and other bone-building nutrients, such as protein) to prevent osteoporosis. The most available and accessible sources come from dairy products, which are absorbed well by the body.
“If a woman is not consuming three servings of dairy or other high calcium foods daily, a supplement is necessary,” Larson said.
You may also need vitamin B6, which forms red blood cells, and vitamin B12, which keeps red blood cells and nerves healthy.
One of the more common supplements women need is vitamin D, which regulates immune function and other cell processes along with supporting the absorption of calcium. The best way to find out if vitamin D supplementation is necessary is to test the blood level of 25 di-hydroxy vitamin D. If it’s below 30 ng/ml, (according to the latest laboratory cutoffs), you need supplements.
Vitamin D deficiencies are more likely to occur in people who live in northern latitudes because it’s difficult to get enough sun exposure to make adequate amounts of vitamin D, according Larson. Also, as you age you become less efficient at producing it, and obese and overweight individuals seem to have lower levels.
If you don’t eat fish two to three times a week, it may be wise to supplement with omega 3 fatty acids (both docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid) from fish oil.
“Fish oil is by far the best, most absorbable source of omega 3 fatty acids, along with fish,” Larson said.
Omega 3 fatty acids decrease inflammation and are linked to the prevention of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, arthritis, and some cancers. Omega 3 fatty acids also support eye and brain health and are even linked to reducing depression.
A registered dietitian nutritionist can do a thorough food intake evaluation to determine what supplements might be beneficial for you to take.
Karen Appold is a medical writer in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.