Vitamins and trace minerals are essential for normal metabolism and yet inadequately produced by our bodies--if at all. This means we have to make sure that we receive adequate amounts through our diet. Compared to carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, vitamins and minerals are needed in very small amounts, which is why they are also called micronutrients. But that does not make them any less important. They are needed by all organs of the body--severe deficiency can cause disease and even death.
Dietary supplements, meanwhile, refer to the broad range of products that are add-ons to our normal diet. These include not only vitamins and minerals, but also herbal or botanical formulations (like ginseng and garlic), fibers (psyllium), amino acids (like tryptophan and lysine), enzymes (coenzyme Q10), and hormone-like compounds (melatonin). There is a wide range of dietary supplements available in the market. But let’s focus only on the essential vitamins and minerals here.
If you follow healthy eating habits, vitamin and mineral deficiencies will be rare, and you need not take supplements. The World Health Organization (WHO) even cautions that there is “a tendency to want to resolve micronutrient deficiency problems through the use of supplements rather than through increasing the consumption of an adequate and varied diet.” It might sound extreme, but there are women who think that it’s OK to go on fad diets, skip meals, smoke, and binge on alcohol, then meet dietary requirements by taking a few pills.
There are three reasons for taking vitamin and mineral supplements:
1. TREATING DEFICIENCIES
First, take supplements if you are diagnosed with a deficiency. Iron deficiency anemia is the greatest nutritional deficiency problem among adults in the Philippines and is seen in almost 30 percent of adults ages 20 to 59 and almost 40 percent of those 60 years and older. It is more common in women because of losses during menstruation. What’s most worrisome is it is seen in 4 out of 10 pregnant or lactating Filipino women. In some of the poorest areas of the country, it goes up to 8 out of 10 women.
Night blindness (poor or no vision in the evening but normal vision at daytime) is another common problem among adults. It was reported by 1 out of 10 Filipino women in an Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) survey of mothers and caregivers. It is a common symptom of vitamin A deficiency.
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Read these other articles for more good health tips:
- Vitamin ABCs: Which vitamins should you really be taking?
- 6 Easy Tricks to Help You Eat Healthier
- Healthy or Harmful: What You Should Know about the Food You Eat
- What Every Woman Should Know about Heart Disease, Diabetes, Osteoporosis, and 4 Other Health Concerns
(First published in Good Housekeeping Magazine, Good Health section as "Health Check" in August 2005; photo by colindunn via Flickr Creative Commons ; adapted for use in Female Network)
2. PREVENTING DEFICIENCIES
The second reason for taking supplements is to address an expected deficiency. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are more common among those with chronic diseases--like cancer, diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis, stroke, and obesity--because the overall nutritional status is often not optimal. Those with poor appetite or vomiting or who are physically unable to feed themselves are not likely to get adequate nutrition. Also remember that many of these so-called lifestyle diseases are caused by poor nutrition to begin with.
In general, vitamin and mineral supplements are prescribed for the elderly because of concurrent chronic diseases and also because of poor nutrition, due to problems ranging from bad teeth to being bedridden and immobile.
Deficiencies are also expected among those undergoing dialysis because some micronutrients are filtered out before the body gets the chance to use them. Those with gastrointestinal system problems or those who have gone through bowel surgery will likely need supplements because nutrients are not absorbed adequately. Many drugs alter the metabolism of vitamins and minerals. For example, steroids, furosemide and thyroid hormone are “bone depleters,” and users might benefit from added calcium. Pyridoxine (vitamin B6) is usually prescribed for patients taking isoniazid, an anti-tuberculosis drug. If you are on maintenance medication for a medical condition, ask your doctor or a nutritionist about your need for supplements.
3. PREVENTING DISEASE
The third and rather controversial reason for taking vitamin and mineral supplements is to prevent diseases like cancer and heart disease. Beta carotene (a source of vitamin A), vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium are often touted as wonder drugs in the fight against these two diseases.
These micronutrients have antioxidant properties and are thus believed to contribute to the fight against free radicals that cause injury to cells. Such injuries, if unchecked, can lead to a range of diseases. The scientific rationale is convincing, but reports in medical journals are not quite as optimistic. The results of small studies are conflicting, and meta-analysis (putting together the results of small studies so that the data sets are larger) shows no clear benefit.
These supplements are available over the counter, and you can certainly take them if you wish. But remember that more is not necessarily better. Overdoses are damaging and potentially lethal. Large doses are not recommended. Antioxidants from a variety of whole foods (berries, beans, nuts, vegetables and whole grains) are actually more effective--not to mention safer. A healthy diet, exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation can do more to fight cancer and heart disease than a pill.
The FNRI has a list of Recommended Energy and Nutrient Intakes (RENI) for Filipinos.
Think about the nutrients that you get from your usual diet, then rationally determine your needs. Take five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables every day. Pay attention to food labels, which show what percentage of daily requirements is met by each serving; junk those that offer only empty calories. Consider using some popular foods that have the Sangkap Pinoy Seal—fortified with iron, vitamin A, or iodine. Some dairy products and bread are also enriched with essential micronutrients.
The most important thing is to listen to your body. Micronutrient deficiency manifests in ways we often brush aside—lack of energy (iron), poor wound healing (vitamin C), vision problems at night (vitamin A), thyroid enlargement (iodine), skin problems (zinc, vitamins A, B3 and B6), hair problems (iron, selenium, zinc, B complex vitamins), brittle nails (B complex), fractures (calcium), and even depression (folic acid and vitamin B complex). Fix your diet first, then supplement if necessary.
(Photo by owairf89 via Flickr Creative Commons)