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What to Know about Multivitamins and Minerals

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During my undergraduate, I dated a man who refused to eat vegetables. He instead supplemented his diet with capsules filled with powdered greens, in the theory that anything he was missing out on he could get from a pill. This idea started me on an investigation of supplements to see if you really could remove entire, traditionally considered "essential" parts of your diet and still remain healthy.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, more than one-third of Americans take dietary supplements. People take supplements and vitamins for a variety of reasons, some of which are prescribed by doctors and others that may be dangerously self-prescribed. Some people want to improve their health, athletic performance, preventative care or protection from problems like cancer, skin damage, or depression. The reality is that supplements, when used at appropriate dosages, may offer some health benefits for certain conditions. Food is still the best way to provide the phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals for optimal health. There are things in foods that cannot be replaced by supplements alone, including your entire vegetable intake! Dietary supplements include herbs, botanicals, enzymes, hormones, vitamins, minerals, extracts, metabolites, and concentrates.

If you consume a balanced diet with a variety of foods, you shouldn't need to consume extra vitamins and minerals. However, if you are unwilling or unable to eat a varied diet, should you consider a multivitamin/mineral or other supplement? In some cases: pregnant or breastfeeding women, women interested in becoming pregnant, menopausal women, people with diseases affecting absorption and older adults should consider discussing with their dietitian or doctor how to improve their diet and consider some supplements.

The fortification of many of our foods, such as adding iodine to salt, has largely eradicated the issue of nutritional deficiencies in the States. Although sometimes related, there is a difference between nutritional deficiencies and chronic disease. There continues to be not enough evidence to prove that multivitamin and mineral supplements are beneficial or not beneficial in prevention of chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Some scientific evidence shows that some dietary supplements are beneficial for overall health and for managing certain health conditions. Some of the more common include calcium and vitamin D for optimal bone health, adequate folic acid to decrease the risk of certain birth defects and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils, which might be beneficial to some people with heart disease.

As a culture, we often have this mentality that more is better. With supplements, this is not the case! More can be dangerous, and if nothing else, a waste of money! Labels on supplements will tell you how much you are consuming in a single dose. For those people who are already getting a variety of healthy foods in their diets, low-dose supplements are generally considered safe. Read the label of your multivitamin/mineral supplement to see if you are getting 100 percent of your Daily Values (DVs) or less. Avoid supplements that boast "high potency" -- when the dose is greater than your daily needs, there can be harmful effects.

Some of these negative effects include diarrhea, hair loss, fatigue, kidney stones, liver damage, or potentially even birth defects or death. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble vitamins and are stored in your body -- taking high levels of these can lead to toxicity in the body. Water-soluble vitamins can cause diarrhea, nausea and other negative health effects. But mostly likely, you will just urinate out the excess that your body cannot use, thus paying a lot of money for nutrients that you did not utilize. Furthermore, many supplements may have counter-indications or potentially harmful interactions, so it is very important to do research before you just start taking a supplement. Also, keep in mind that supplements are not regulated the same way that food, beverages and medications are. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are effective before they are marketed.

Before supplementing, consider ways of increasing your absorption rates using nutrient-rich foods, such as consuming high vitamin C and iron foods together to increase absorption. If you are still considering a supplement, ask yourself the following questions: What are the potential benefits from the supplement? Are there any safety concerns? What is an appropriate dose? What are the potential benefits for you? And how, when and for what length of time you want to use the product?

Conclusively, food remains the best way to get and absorb nutrients for optimal health.

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Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 12'-14' working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.


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