Experts: Supplements Can Fill in Dietary Gaps

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you’re concerned about the nutrition in your diet, popping a daily multi-vitamin may seem and easy fix; however, it’s not all that easy.

“There’s a lot to sift through to make sure what you’re taking is safe and efficacious,” said Mary Jo Parker, a registered dietitian in private practice in Williamsville.

She advises looking at supplements approved by consumer watchdog groups and bearing the USP seal or NSF international, independent labs that assure supplements are what they claim. Sticking with well-known brand names may also help.

“Companies that put their name on a label will do due diligence,” Parker said.

She said that many common things affect women’s health, including hormones, age, malabsorption issues, dietary restrictions, chronic disease, pregnancy and lactation. These can make it challenging to take a one-size-fits-all multivitamin. She takes an approach that individualizes a supplement regimen based upon testing a client. But in general, most women miss out on a few different areas, such as vitamin D.

Sunlight stimulates the body to generate vitamin D, a pre-hormone that regulates many bodily functions, but in areas like the Northeast, limited exposure reduces stores of vitamin D.

Parker added that vitamins C and E and magnesium, potassium and iron are often lacking in the diets of pre-menopausal, pregnant and adolescence women.

“When you see that over 25% of Americans have intakes less than the estimated average requirements for the needs of 50% of the population, that underscores the push for not only improved intake for health diet but also it underscores the likely need for at least a well-rounded, low-potency multiple vitamin and mineral supplement. Most experts say that poses no risk and likely can confer benefits.”

Parker said that women in general are at elevated risk for dietary missteps because they tend to go on restrictive diets for weight loss such as diets that eliminate entire food groups or cut calories. For these women, Parker recommends a good multivitamin.

“If they don’t eat much meat, they may need a B-12, B-6 and riboflavin supplement,” Parker said. “If it’s a low-carb diet, they may not get the B vitamins they need. Some diets are low in zinc.”

Age and stage of life also make a difference. Those of childbearing years should take a folic acid supplement.

“It is important to make sure they’re getting 400 mg to prevent birth defects,” Parker said.

It’s most effective to begin taking folic acid before conception.

Parker also warned that older adults often see a decrease in absorption of vitamin B-12. They also may benefit from an “eye” formula to reduce risk of macular degeneration. These often contain a balance of zinc, copper, lutein and zeaxanthin.

Justine Hays, registered dietitian and owner of Justine Hays Nutrition in Buffalo, said that ideally, a diet of whole fruits and vegetables should provide the nutrients needed for good health; however, supplements may fill in dietary gaps.

“Always check with your primary care provider before starting supplements,” Hays said. “If you take too many, you can have certain vitamin and mineral overloads. You want to do it safely and make sure your primary care provider is aware that you’re taking supplements.”

She also cautioned that some herbal supplements can interact with medication or even aggravate allergies. Oral contraceptives, for example, may be affected by St. John’s wort.

“I caution people in terms of just supplementing with individual minerals,” Parker said. “It doesn’t take a lot to get at a point at which the body may have difficulty clearing it. With supplements, you have to be more careful with quantity.”

She added that nutrients inherent to food behave differently in the body, since fiber and other natural ingredients may block absorption if there’s too much.