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Getting Savvy about Dietary Supplements

Vitamins and Supplements

If you swallow a handful of vitamins every morning, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans take dietary supplements as part of their daily routine. But are they necessary as we age?

What is a dietary supplement?

In 1994, Congress officially defined the term “dietary supplement” as “a product taken by mouth that contains a dietary ingredient intended to supplement the diet.” These ingredients can include vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids, herbs, and enzymes.

Visit any superstore and you will find supplements in all kinds of forms, including pills, tablets, soft gels, capsules, liquids, extracts, powders, and even gummies. Most of us purchase these supplements to add nutrients that may be missing from our diet or to lower the risk of a particular health problem.

Are they necessary as you age?

As we approach 50, our bodies change and become less effective at absorbing nutrition, making it even more important for us to continue good eating and lifestyle habits.

bottle of mini vegetables

A simple blood test can determine what your body needs to function at its peak."

But even if we follow a healthy diet, sometimes we may still need some supplementation to address a particular health issue or nutritional deficiency. Additionally, later life is also when people tend to experience changes in their bodies that require hormone replacement therapy, blood pressure medications, or other medical treatments that can affect absorption or availability of certain vitamins. For people in these situations, a daily vitamin or supplement may also be warranted.

If you think your diet may be lacking in something or that your body is not working the way it used to, visit your doctor or dietician to see which supplements you might need to take. Your health care provider or dietician can help you determine the specific deficiencies you need to address and help you counter them in the best possible way for your unique makeup.

“Everyone needs an annual physical with their physician or provider, and at that point the physician can do a simple blood test to help determine what needs to be done,” says Peggy Noblett, a nutritionist with Alexian Brothers PACE. “This test can check vitamins B12 and D as well as calcium and iron – some of the most important things your body needs to function at its peak.”

Vitamins and Minerals for 50+

If you’re over 50, talk to your doctor about whether you may need any of the following.

The body needs calcium to maintain strong bones. It also helps our blood clot, our nerves send messages, and our muscles contract.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays an important role in protecting your bones as you age and your body requires it to absorb calcium.

B Vitamins
These vitamins help the process your body uses to get or make energy from the food you eat. They also help form red blood cells.

Folic Acid
Folic acid helps the body build and maintain DNA and is important in helping the body make new cells, especially red blood cells.

Can supplements replace certain foods?

It’s critical to remember that supplements are meant to be added to a healthy diet, not replace one. Vitamins and supplements can offer nutrients you might be missing, but there is still no replacement for a simple common-sense approach to good eating.
“If you are low in a certain vitamin or mineral, it won’t hurt to take a daily multivitamin or a supplement recommended by your doctor,” Noblett says. “But when you are addressing deficiencies, it’s still best to start by filling in the gaps with your diet. Most people don’t eat well every day. Work and life get in the way, and we don’t take the time to cook and eat all the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains we need.”

Which ones should I take?

Women are at a greater risk for brittle bones as they age and may need to take vitamin D and calcium supplements to avoid osteoporosis. However, vitamin D, which comes from sunlight, is critical for all genders and ages. If you find yourself indoors most of the time, you may want to talk to your doctor about taking a supplement of this vital nutrient.

In addition, vitamin B12 can become difficult to absorb as we age. This nutrient, found in shellfish, meat, and dairy products, helps keep our red blood cells and nerves healthy. You may need a supplement if levels become low.

Found in potatoes, bananas, chicken breasts, and fortified cereals, vitamin B6 helps to form red blood cells. Absorption of this vitamin can become a challenge for the aging population, so many opt to supplement their diet.

With so many varieties of supplements available, purchasing the right dosage of any kind can be a confusing endeavor. A discussion with your doctor will help clarify your individual dosage needs and help you avoid getting too much or too little of a particular supplement.

Supplement with H20

Noblett says that it’s best to take a vitamin or supplement with plenty of water. Why?

“Vitamins and minerals need water to help them carry out healthy chemical reactions,” she says. “If you don’t drink enough fluids, that can decrease their effectiveness. Water isn’t just good for your skin, it’s good for everything that helps the body tick.”

Seeing a Professional

Dietary supplements should never be viewed as a replacement for healthy habits. Rather, they are best used under the surveillance of a health professional and along with every effort to optimize health through diet, exercise, and lifestyle.

If you are thinking about using dietary supplements, begin by talking to your doctor, pharmacist, or registered dietician. It’s especially important to ask your doctor about taking a supplement if you’re about to have surgery or have a health condition such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes.

Another reason to seek the advice of a medical professional is that certain supplements can reduce the effectiveness of prescription medications. With the help of a trusted health professional, we can safely and effectively use dietary supplements to maximize our health and well-being.

Peggy Noblett, RD, MS, LDN

Peggy Noblett, RD, MS, LDN

Alexian Brothers PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly)

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