Straight Talk: Should You Take Vitamins and Supplements?

Should you take vitamins? That depends on your personal health and lifestyle. Read on.

As we age and our bodies change, our nutrition needs change as well, but is the answer to maintaining the right nutritional balance to be found in pills like vitamins and other supplements, or on our dinner plates? That depends on each individual’s health and lifestyle.

Mary Beth Hardwicke, M.D., who frequently does presentations about seniors’ supplemental nutrition needs, says the most important habit to establish is getting proper nutrition on a daily basis. “As we get older, diets tend to become less nutritious,” she says. Seniors may find themselves taking less time to prepare meals or reaching for single-serving meals high in sodium or saturated fats. She suggested following the recommendations found at ChooseMyPlate.gov:

  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables
  • Make half your grains whole grains
  • Move to low-fat and fat-free dairy
  • Vary your protein variety

Still, seniors face common nutritional problems, and one is vitamin D deficiency. “Vitamin D is really important for brain and muscle health,” Hardwicke says. “It’s the only vitamin your body manufactures.” It does so from sunlight exposure on skin. Because this region sees little sun in winter and seniors generally don’t get outside much in winter, a shortage of the vitamin in older adults is not uncommon.

Another vitamin that seniors are often short on is B12. As we age—especially after 60—the acid levels in our gut changes, making us less able to absorb B12, explains Hardwicke. Before running to the drug store for vitamin D and B12 supplements, you might consider natural sources. Foods such as tuna, mackerel, beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks are rich in vitamin D. Fortuitously, B12 is found in many of the same foods: clams, liver, fish, crab, shrimp, low-fat beef, fortified cereal, fortified tofu, low-fat dairy, cheese, and eggs.

When people realize they aren’t eating as nutritiously as they should, “a good multivitamin can be helpful,” Hardwicke says. Doctors are split on whether to recommend their patients regularly take a vitamin. “Half say yes, and half say no,” says Hardwicke. There are no studies that demonstrate taking multivitamins prevents diseases, but there are none that show a multivitamin hurts, either.

Hardwicke typically comes down on the side of those who recommend taking a daily vitamin. “A multivitamin won’t hurt. I take one myself. I know it won’t hurt me, and I don’t (always) eat well enough.” For those who do decide to take a regular daily vitamin, Hardwicke recommends a well-known brand formulated with seniors’ needs in mind.

On the other hand, Hardwicke warns against taking megadoses of most vitamins. “A, D, E, and K are fat soluble. You can develop toxicity,” she says. Though studies have yet to demonstrate any benefit from dramatically increasing one’s intake of vitamin C to combat or ward off a cold, Hardwicke doesn’t dissuade anyone, as long as it’s not done on a sustained basis. “I have no problem with a megadose of C on a short-term basis,” she says. But, another note of caution: Too much C can make you prone to kidney stones.

Hardwicke is less enthusiastic about many non-vitamin supplements, including herbs and minerals, noting that most diets provide necessary amounts of the latter. One exception: calcium. The mineral helps keep bones and teeth strong, which is important among seniors as bone loss accelerates after age 50, especially among women.

“Since estrogen helps maintain bone mass, women become more vulnerable to bone loss after menopause,” Diane McKay, a nutrition researcher at Boston’s Tufts University, told AARP.

“Women younger than 50 need 1,000 to 1,200 mg [of calcium] daily. It’s 1,200 to 1,500 mg post menopause,” Hardwicke says. Again, if you can obtain that amount from your diet, all the better. To boost your calcium intake, eat cheese, yogurt, milk, and figs.

The best advice Hardwicke has is to talk with your doctor about your diet and medications. “Check with your physician and [do] whatever your doctor tells you.”

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