NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Food or Pill?

Food or a Pill?

About 68 percent of American adults take a multivitamin supplement each day because they think the food they eat lacks needed nutrients.  And with supplement sales totaling over $23.7 billion a year, Americans are investing a great deal in the hope that supplements will help.  Sometimes though, hope can be confused with reality.

The Value of Supplements

  • Myth: People can eat whatever they want as long as they take vitamin and mineral supplements.

Fact: Supplements supply some vitamins and minerals, but they do not provide all of the components of food necessary for good health. We need 42 nutrients each day. Supplements supply only a fraction of these and are not a quick fix for poor food choices.

  • Myth: People need vitamin and mineral supplements to ensure good nutrition.

Fact: Supplements are not needed if a variety of foods are eaten. Taking in more nutrients than the body needs does not give added energy, more brain power or greater protection against disease.

Types of Supplements

  • Myth: Natural vitamins are better for you than synthetic vitamins.

Fact: The body treats most natural supplements the same as synthetic vitamins.

  • Myth: Supplements with added enzymes are easier to digest.

Fact: Supplements with added enzymes to aid digestion are unnecessary. The body makes its own digestive enzymes.

  • Myth: There is no harm in taking supplements; after all, they contain the same nutrients as in foods.

Fact: Very high doses of many vitamins such as A, C, D and B-6, as well as several minerals, can cause serious health problems if taken regularly. Excesses of one nutrient may cause nutritional imbalances or increase the need for other nutrients. Some supplements interfere with the action of medications, creating a variety of ill effects.

Certain individuals have special needs and may benefit from taking a supplement. They include the following:

  • People with limited food intake, such as chronic dieters and some elderly, have difficulty meeting their nutrient needs.
  • Some vegetarians, especially strict vegans who eat no meat, dairy products or eggs, may not receive adequate amounts of iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B-12.
  • Individuals with certain diseases or physiological conditions may require supplementation.
  • Newborn infants are given vitamin K to help their blood clot.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women require higher levels of many nutrients, especially folacin, iron and calcium.

Adequate folate is particularly important before pregnancy and during the first trimester to prevent neural tube defects. A supplement is sometimes needed for folate and iron. The addition of folic acid to grains and cereals helps to increase the amount of folate people can obtain from foods.

  • Myth: People under emotional stress need "stress" vitamins.

Fact: Emotional stress does not increase nutrient needs. In fact, some companies have been required to stop advertising their products as stress vitamins. Unfortunately, other companies continue to make these false claims. Physiological stress, such as burns, trauma and surgery, do increase nutrient needs, and a supplement may be prescribed.

  • Myth: Those who smoke or drink in excess should take vitamin pills to protect their body from the harmful effects of smoking and drinking.

Fact: Smoking does increase the body's need for vitamin C, and alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to use several nutrients. However, taking additional vitamins and minerals will not protect people from the harmful effects of smoking or alcohol abuse.

·         Myth: Competitive athletes and others who exercise regularly should take extra vitamins and minerals.

  • Myth: Taking supplements is an inexpensive way to ensure good health.

Fact: The $27.3 billion Americans spend on supplements is a lot of money. Because the body has limited storage for most of these nutrients, they are excreted and go down the drain. The most cost-effective way to promote good health is to exercise regularly and eat a wide selection of foods.



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