More than one out of every two adults are taking nutritional supplements, making them the most popped pills in America. (More Americans are supplementing than ever before, according to a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. In the past 20 years, the percentage of Americans taking one or more supplements has increased from 42% to 53%.) We spend up to $27 billion on them every year. Are we wasting our money? Would we be just as well, or better, off without them, or would everyone benefit from a daily vitamin pill? Even if supplements are a good idea, how do you know what and how much to take, what to avoid, and how to avoid spending too much. How do we know when we’re getting our money’s worth? Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Sexy helped set the record straight.
1. I’ve always heard that people should get their vitamins from food. Do we really need supplements?
You’re referring to the first commandment in nutrition that states “Thou shalt meet all your nutritional needs from a balanced diet.” That means, all a person has to do is consume daily 9 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables, 6 whole grains, 3 glasses of low-fat milk, and 2 servings of extra-lean meat, chicken, fish, or legumes. Sounds reasonable, but there’s a catch - most people aren’t doing it. In fact, only a measly one out of every 100 people meet even minimum standards for a balanced diet, let alone eat close to my SE xY diet. So, many of us, especially if we are dieting, have been pregnant in the past few years, or exercise, would benefit from a well-chosen supplement.
2. What should a person consider when faced with that wall of pills, powders, and potions?
There are four steps in choosing the best, and least expensive, supplements for you:
A. A Multi: For healthy people who just want to feel a bit sexier, a multiple vitamin and mineral is the place to start. Nutrients are supplied as teams in food, so if your diet is low in one nutrient, it’s a sure bet it’s low in others, too. A multiple is a convenient, inexpensive way to supply a balance of nutrients, while avoiding secondary deficiencies that result when you take too much of one nutrient and crowd out another. For example, many of the minerals compete for absorption, so taking a large dose of one, such as iron, could result in a deficiency of another, such as copper or zinc. Take a good multi and you won’t have to worry about that.
Select a broad-range multiple that supplies as close to 100%, but no more than 300%, of the Daily Value for a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. For quality sake, stick with the major brands, such as Centrum or Nature Made, or with a product with the USP quality seal that guarantees high standards,. Most of these are inexpensive.
B. Minerals: When it comes to calcium or magnesium, you need so much of these minerals that the multi pill would be the size of a golf ball. Typically, multis give only lip service to these nutrients. You need calcium to keep your bones, skin, nerves, and muscle in tip top shape, while magnesium is critical for coping with stress, maintaining a healthy heartbeat and blood pressure, and improving muscle, nerve, and bones. Unless you include at least three servings daily of calcium-rich milk products or fortified soymilk and lots of magnesium-rich soybeans, nuts, and wheat germ, you should supplement these two minerals.
Calcium and magnesium are best absorbed and used when supplied in a 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium. You get some of these minerals in your diet, so you only need to fill in the gaps by taking a supplement with 500 milligrams calcium and 250 milligrams magnesium, if your multiple is low in these minerals. When it comes to magnesium, more is not better. Magnesium is the active ingredient in Milk of Magnesia, which means you could be a bit “looser” than you’d like if you exceed the upper limit.
C. Omega-3s: If you don’t consume at least 2 servings a week of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, or herring, then take an omega-3 supplement. You need at least 220mg of the omega-3 DHA, and possibly up to 900mg/day to lower the risk for heart disease (the #1 killer for both men and women), depression, and possibly even lower Alzheimer’s risk by 70%.
D. Vitamin D. If your multi or calcium does not have at least 1000 IU, then consider a separate supplement here, since you can’t get enough from food and optimal intake is associated with lowered risk for muscle weakness, gum disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, hypertension, and certain cancers, including colon, breast, pancreas, and prostate cancers. Vitamin D also reduces the incidence of falls by up to 60% in seniors.
3. What about all those supplements we see on the market right now that are supposed to jump-start a lagging libido or turn back the clock on aging?
Hundreds of supplements, with names like Aroused, Climaxx, Instant Sex, Love in a Jar, Female Virility-V, Maximine’s Intima for Women, and Libidoblast, promise to put frisky back into your love life. Most are all promise and no show. Some have scanty research to support the folklore, such as with ayurvedic herbs or roots like Asparagus racemosus, damiana, muira puama, Kali Musli, or maca. Others are down right dangerous, especially when they contain ephedra, an amphetamine-like stimulant that at best may not make you horny, but will rev your engines to clean house or finish all those projects you never had time for. At worst, heart rate can exceed 200 beats/minute, causing dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and even death.
The most iffy of all supplements are ones that claim to jack-up your hormones, such as testosterone, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), and growth hormone. Messing with hormones is like playing cards with the devil. For example, DHEA supplements might increase muscle mass, strength, mood, energy, libido, mental capacity, memory, and weight loss, but they also produce unpredictable results, ranging from acne and facial hair to liver damage, breast and uterine cancer in women and prostate cancer and aggressiveness in men.
There are 4 supplements that do show promise, especially for your heart and mood , they include:
A. Red Yeast Rice: Supplements of red yeast rice (RYR) might be an affective alternative to statin medications in improving blood flow, lowering blood cholesterol levels, and reducing heart-disease risk. But, always, always check with your physician before self-medicating with any supplement like this.
B. CoEnzyme Q10: Every cell in the body depends on a fat-soluble substance called coenzyme Q10 (also called ubiquinone or CoQ10) to help convert food and oxygen into energy. CoQ10 also might help improve heart function, boost immunity, and possibly aid in weight management. It also is a potent antioxidant, protecting the blood vessels, heart, brain, sex organs, and other tissues from free-radical damage. CoQ10 even looks promising in extending your healthy years. Typical doses range from 100 to 300 milligrams a day. If you are on statins or even red yeast rice (RYR), make sure you also supplement with this antioxidants, since these medications drain CoQ10 from the body.
C. Sam-E: S-adenosylmethionine (SAM-e) might be even more effective than some anti-depressant medications in lifting the depression fog. SAM-e (pronounced “sammy”) is made naturally in the body, but for some people, the body makes too little of this mood-boosting compound. Supplementing with SAM-e can is enough to see improvements in mood, at least for some people. Again, talk to your doctor about this supplement before taking.
D. Resveratrol: This polyphenol found in abundance in red wine, and in lower amounts in red grapes, peanuts, pomegranates, and berries, is a potent antioxidant and turns on cells’ production of anti-aging substances. It also speeds cell repair, encourages cancer cells to self-destruct, strengthens blood vessels and lowers the risk for inflammation, heart disease, cancer, dementia, Alzheimers, menopause symptoms, diabetes, and possibly even obesity and sexual dysfunction. It even shows promise in extending lifespan. Researchers haven’t figured out yet how much we need, so don’t go overboard.
4. What are some ways to cut cost without sacrificing quality?
First, steer clear of supplements that contain "extra" ingredients, such as lipoic acid, enzymes, primrose oil, or inositol, to name only a few. These extras only add cost, not value, to a product since they are either worthless or supplied in amounts too low to be of use.
Second, purchase bigger or “economy size” bottles when the unit price saves you money. However, make sure you can use the supplements before the expiration date on the label to ensure they retain their potency.
Third, consider purchasing store-brand multiples. Often these generics are manufactured by the same companies who make the brand-name products.
4. Natural vitamins cost more than synthetic ones. Are the benefits worth the cost?
No. You pay up to 10 times as much for these vitamins for no measurable extra benefits. The idea that natural vitamins provide some special benefit has never been proven and, in fact, some so-called natural vitamins are just synthetic vitamins with a dusting of other stuff. For example, Rose Hip Vitamin C with Bioflavonoids is made from a small fraction of rose hips, the majority of the vitamin C in the pill comes from manufactured ascorbic acid. Unless a supplement specifies on the label exactly how much of what bioflavonoids are in the pill, assume none.
There are a few exceptions. For example, natural vitamin E, is slightly better used by the body than is the synthetic vitamin E. However, the benefits are not significant enough to warrant the several-fold increase in price. In fact, most studies that have found health benefits in taking a vitamin E supplement, have used mostly synthetic vitamin E. Selenium and chromium also are best absorbed in their “natural” rather than “salt” form. The bottom line? Stick with the less expensive synthetic vitamins and use the extra money to buy more fresh vegetables!
5. What about time-released vitamins, are they worth the extra cost?
This is another place were you can save some money. The theory behind time-released vitamins makes sense and says that a vitamin designed to dissolve and be absorbed slowly would prevent a rapid rise and subsequent loss of the nutrient in the urine, thus prolonging the availability of the vitamin to the tissues. Unfortunately, in reality, time-released vitamins are no better, and might even be less effective, than regular supplements. One exception to this rule is large doses of time-released niacin used in the treatment of high blood cholesterol levels. But, in this case, we’re talking about a vitamin used as a medication, and a person always should consult his/her physician about the benefits or precautions of this treatment.
6. I’ve heard that chelated minerals are better absorbed. Is this true?
Show me the evidence! While the manufactures of these minerals say they are better absorbed and show in-house studies to prove it, there is no body of research from well-designed studies conducted by researchers not vested in the product to support these claims. You pay 2 to 10 times more for these minerals and for no apparent benefit. Mineral absorption is affected far more by the circumstances in which you take the supplement. For example, most mineral are better absorbed with a meal than on an empty stomach.
Another place you can save some money is to avoid “colloidal” minerals. They cost up to $50 for a month’s supply, yet there are no studies to support their effectiveness. In fact, I am concerned about their potential for containing toxic metals, such as aluminum, cadmium, or lead.
7. Are antacids an inexpensive place to get your calcium?
Yes, BUT...preventing osteoporosis is more than just a calcium issue. People also need magnesium, vitamin D, and other nutrients, not to mention exercise and not smoking. So don’t be lulled into thinking all your bases are covered if you’re taking an antacid. On the other hand, a great way to get your calcium is with chocolate calcium chews. They are the only supplement I look forward to taking...I use them as my dessert at lunch.
Keep in mind that a supplement should complement an excellent diet and can fill in the nutritional gaps on those days when you don’t eat quite perfectly. You can’t live on hamburgers and french fries, then take a supplement and think you’re doing well! In short, supplements are just that....they supplement, not substitute for, a good diet.