Using supplements as insurance

Healthy people who eat a nutritious diet still may want to use supplements to make sure they're getting adequate nutrition. Plenty of recent research supports their choice.

Protecting against disease

Taking supplements may reduce the likelihood of some types of cancer and other diseases. After analyzing data from a survey of 871 men and women, epidemiologists at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center found that people taking a daily multivitamin for more than ten years were 50 percent less likely to develop colon cancer. In addition, selenium supplements seem to reduce the risk of prostate cancer, and vitamin C seems to lower the risk of cataracts.

Supplementing aging appetites

As you grow older, your appetite may decline and your sense of taste and smell may falter. If food no longer tastes as good as it once did, if you have to eat alone all the time and don't enjoy cooking for one, or if dentures make chewing difficult, you may not be taking in all the foods that you need to get the nutrients you require. Dietary supplements to the rescue!

If you're so rushed that you literally never get to eat a full, balanced meal, you may benefit from supplements regardless of your age.

Meeting a woman's special needs

And what about women? At various stages of their reproductive lives, they, too, benefit from supplements-as-insurance:

1 Before menopause: Women, who lose iron each month through menstrual bleeding, rarely get sufficient amounts of iron from a typical American diet providing fewer than 2,000 calories a day. For them, and for women who are often on a diet to lose weight, iron supplements may be the only practical answer.

Iron is a mineral element, so it may be called "iron" or "elemental iron" on the label. Iron pills contain a compound of elemental iron ("ferrous" or "ferric," from ferrum, the Latin word for iron), plus an ingredient such as a sulfur derivative or lactic acid to enable your body to use the iron. On the label, the combination reads "ferrous sulfate" or "ferrous lactate." Different iron compounds dissolve at different rates in your stomach, yielding different amounts of elemental iron, so supplement labels usually list the iron this way: Ferrous sulfate 325 mg/Elemental iron 65 mg. Translation? This pill has 325 milligrams of ferrous sulfate, yielding 65 milligrams plain old iron. Sometimes the label omits the first part and simply says: Iron 65 mg.

If your doctor says, "Take one 325-milligram pill a day," she means 325 milligrams iron compound, not plain elemental iron.

^ During pregnancy and lactation: Women who are pregnant or nursing often need supplements to provide the nutrients they need to build new maternal and fetal tissue or to produce nutritious breast milk. In addition, supplements of the B vitamin folate now are known to decrease a woman's risk of giving birth to a child with a neural tube defect (a defect of the spinal cord and column).

Never self-prescribe supplements while you're pregnant. Large amounts of some nutrients may actually be hazardous for your baby. For example, taking megadoses of vitamin A while you're pregnant can increase the risk of birth defects.

^ Through adulthood: True, women older than 19 can get the calcium they require (1,000 milligrams/day) from four 8-ounce glasses of nonfat skim milk a day, three 8-ounce containers of yogurt made with nonfat milk, 22 ounces of canned salmon (with the soft edible bones; no, you definitely should not eat the hard bones in fresh salmon!), or any combination of the above. However, expecting women to do this nutritional balancing act every single day may be unrealistic. The simple alternative is calcium supplements.

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