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Vitamin and Mineral Supplements for Women

Posted Dec 11 2010 12:00am
A look at women's vitamin and mineral needs, food sources, and supplements.

You do your best to eat right. You help yourself to fruits and vegetables, plenty of whole grains, and mostly healthy fats. Should you also take a vitamin/mineral supplement?

There’s still plenty of controversy. But new findings are providing clearer answers - and better advice on how to spend your hard-earned health cash.

Food First

Many experts say most people should skip pills and concentrate on healthier diets, because there are hundreds of compounds in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods from plants that work synergistically in ways we haven’t even begun to understand. You can’t take one or two, put them in a pill, and expect to get the same benefits. A diet based on foods from plants offers the best defense against many chronic diseases.

But many people don't always eat healthfully. Would a multivitamin help?

Multivitamins: Are They Worth It?

Supporters have long recommended multivitamins as insurance against falling short of essential nutrients. Statistics show that there are nutritional gaps in our  diets, including vitamins C, D, E, calcium, and magnesium, among others. Filling those gaps with a multivitamin makes sense.

Whether or not multivitamins prevent disease is another matter because there isn’t enough data to support the issue. Studies have shown that taking a multivitamin has no effect on disease. The message therefore, seems to be that people should eat a healthy diet and not rely on multivitamins.

Some researchers worry that multivitamins may pose risks – such as put the person at higher risk of breast cancer, although cancer is something that is affected by many factors.

What about antioxidants for Women?

What about zeroing in on specific nutrients? Over the years, several become supplement superstars. First came vitamin C, touted as a defense against everything from common colds to cancer. Next up was vitamin E, which seemed to guard against heart disease.
But recent research has dimmed the enthusiasm for antioxidant vitamins such as C, E, and beta carotene. Research shows there’s almost no benefit to taking them in pill form - and maybe some risks.

Research study findings have linked vitamin E, vitamin A, and beta carotene supplements to a higher death rate in some groups. And high doses of vitamin C supplements have been linked to greater risk of developing cataracts. However, those studies don't prove that vitamins were responsible for the results.

No antioxidant supplements have been shown to prevent cancer, especially in well-nourished populations. And there may be some risks. So the best advice is to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in antioxidants, and not depend on pills.

Calcium for Women

Calcium is essential to strong bones throughout life. For most people, pills aren’t the best way to get enough calcium. The body needs both calcium and protein for bone health. So the ideal source of calcium is dairy products, not supplements.

Here are the calcium levels of some foods •    8 ounces of yogurt: 415 mg of calcium
•    8 ounces of milk: 300 mg
•    3 ounces of salmon:181 mg

Many foods, including orange juice, are fortified with extra calcium. Tofu and leafy greens are good plant-based sources of calcium.

But not everyone can tolerate dairy, nor eat enough other calcium-rich foods to meet recommendations.  Calcium carbonate tablets cost the least. Doctors recommend taking them at meals; stomach acid aids digestion. Calcium citrate may be slightly more effective for people with low stomach acid, such as the elderly.
Adequate calcium may help prevent high blood pressure. Here, too, food sources appear to be better than pills.

Studies have found that women who ate more low-fat dairy products were less likely to have high blood pressure. Taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, in contrast, had no effect on blood pressure. But that study doesn't prove cause and effect, so it's not clear that dairy products made high blood pressure less likely.

Vitamin D for Women

The latest superstar supplement is vitamin D. There's growing evidence for its importance to good health. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to fatigue, joint pain, high blood pressure, certain forms of cancer, and other health problems. Supplements seem to help. 

A blood test can check your vitamin D level. Several studies suggest that levels up to 50 - on the 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood test - may keep people healthier.

The most natural way to boost vitamin D levels is through exposure to sunlight, which triggers the skin to make vitamin D. Some doctors encourage some patients to spend a little time in the sun, without sunscreen, to make vitamin D. Obviously, it’s very important not to get sunburned. But a moderate amount of sun exposure can have important health benefits.

Experts still recommend putting sunblock on your face at all times, since the face is at high risk for skin cancer. Sunning yourself to raise vitamin D levels is less effective for people with dark skin, and less effective for everyone as they age.

If you work indoors, avoid the sun, or live in northern latitudes where ultraviolet levels are low, consider a vitamin D supplement. Talk to your doctor about the best dose. Choose supplements that contain D3, the vitamin's most easily absorbed form.

Folic Acid and Choline

For women of childbearing age, getting enough folic acid and choline is crucial.

Folic acid, a B vitamin, is essential for building new cells. Falling short during pregnancy has been linked to increased risk of major birth defects of a baby’s brain and spine. Women of childbearing age need 400 micrograms of folic acid every day. There are two simple ways to make sure you get enough.

•    Take a multivitamin that contains 400 micrograms.
•    Eat a breakfast cereal fortified with 100 percent of the daily value (DV) for folic acid.

Adequate choline levels during pregnancy also help prevent birth defects. This essential nutrient plays a role in blood vessel growth in the brain. Experts recommend that pregnant women get 450 mg a day, or 550 mg a day if they are lactating.

Although some multivitamins contain choline, many foods are rich in this essential nutrient. Leading dietary sources include eggs, liver, chicken, beef, pork, milk, and a variety of vegetables and grains.

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