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Is a Daily Supplement for You?

The snowman in Walgreens commercial says:

The holidays can be stressful, so Walgreens wants to remind you to take care of yourself. And there’s no better place to do just that than Walgreens, where you can get vitamins, supplements, cold remedies…

I say:

Do vitamins come from pharmacies? And do we have to take supplements?

In one summer camp, I taught 8-year-old boys and girls basic nutrition. When I asked them where vitamins come from, one girl said, “gummy bears.”

Hmmmmm.

So I decided to make an experiment to prove that most people–healthy people at least–don’t need any gummy bears. Which will prevail, the food or the pill?

For one day, I recorded everything I ate, how much, and the way it was prepared.

  • Breakfast: 1 cup raisin bran cereal, 1 cup skim milk, and half a medium banana (7 inches)
  • Snack: medium apple
  • Lunch: sandwich (2 slices whole wheat bread, 3 thin slices of turkey, 1 slice processed Cheddar cheese, 1 leaf lettuce, and 1 slice tomato), 10 baby carrots, and 1/2 cup orange juice
  • Snack: 22 raw almond kernels with 10 chocolate-covered raisins
  • Dinner: 3 ounces baked chicken breast without the skin, 1/2 cup green beans, 1 cups brown and wild rice mix, and 1 cup garden salad with dressing (1/2 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, salt, and pepper)
  • Dessert: a 6-ounce container fruit yogurt

Then I went online to MyPyramid Tracker, plugged in all the information, including my age, height, weight, and activity level, and compared what I actually had with what I should.

As expected. For most vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber and protein, I met my needs and more, just from food. And if you think I loaded on too many calories that day, then you’re wrong. Only 1,500 calories. Sweet!

Many people pop in that pill as a safety guard. But the saying that too much of a good thing is bad holds true. One study showed that too much folic acid (a type of B vitamin) promoted the growth of tumors. Other studies found that too much of the antioxidants vitamin A, (beta-carotene) was associated with lung cancer. Too much selenium, a mineral touted for reducing prostate cancer, increased the risk for developing diabetes.

Vitamin D

The sunshine vitamin might be the exception. Although 20 to 30 minutes of daily exposure to summer sun should be enough for your skin to make what you need, a recent study found that Texas runners, who spend hours under the sun, are still deficient. And if you live way high above the equator, you’re not seeing much sun most of the year.

Few foods contain vitamin D (fatty fish, cod liver oil, fortified foods), and the amount is either not adequate or people don’t eat those foods often enough.

How much do you need? In a WebMD article, Michael Hollick, MD, PhD, a Boston University Vitamin D expert, recommends 1,000 IU.

But if you are already deficient, 1,000 IU is not enough and you will need a prescription. The only way to know is to have your doctor check your vitamin D level, or order the test yourself through the Vitamin D Council website.

Fish oils

Again, for healthy people, eating fatty fish twice a week (6 ounces total) will get you covered. Even the American Heart Association doesn’t recommend fish oil supplements for people without a documented heart disease.

There are many types of fish to choose from. Salmon, trout, swordfish, sardines, osyters, flounder, halibut, rockfish, ocean perch, scallops, tuna, blue crab, haddock, catfish, shrimp, and clams all have omega-3 fatty acids (ranked from highest to the lowest in omega-3 fatty acid content).

But if you must take that pill for some reason, read the label. Aim for 400-500 mg EPA+DHA a day, and forget about ALA.

Final words

Unless you’re a pregnant woman, a frail elderly, on medications that require specific supplements, or someone with compromised nutrition, you can save yourself the cost of a daily pill.

As long as you eat your whole grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy, and fish.

Besides, there’s more in food than the chemical compounds packaged in a capsule. What is protecting us from diseases might be something we still haven’t discovered yet.

Make the experiment yourself. If you you’re short on a vitamin or mineral, click on its name and see the foods that have it. You never know, there might be a surprise waiting for you.

Besides, don’t you think that food is more delicious than a pill? Who gets invited for a “pill party” anyways!

*This is not a medical advice. Check with your doctor before you take any supplements.

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  • Abdullah December 2, 2009, 5:51 pm

    Nice article, hopefully we’ll all stay away from pills and stick to natural food!