Everyone needs vitamins and minerals, which are crucial for good health and long life. What we don't need are megadoses of these essential nutrients in pill form. The greatest health benefits come when we get our vitamins from a balanced diet -- but only 3 percent of us eat well enough for that. So unless your doctor has advised you to take a supplement for a specific medical reason, a daily multivitamin is all most healthy individuals need. Read labels to see how much you’re getting of each nutrient, and ask your doctor before starting any vitamin regimen, especially if you already take prescription drugs. Based on the latest studies, here are ten you can skip:
Vitamin A: Excess amounts accumulate and can be toxic. Too much A can blur vision, cause headaches and vomiting, and also lead to liver, bone and central nervous system problems, among others.
RDA*: Men - 900 mcg. Women - 700 mcg. One 7-inch carrot has 600 mcg. Other food sources: fortified cereals, dark leafy greens, fruits, sweet potatoes.
Beta Carotene: The body converts this into vitamin A. Supplementation is not recommended for the general public and should be avoided especially by smokers, who have a greater risk of lung cancer with regular use. Another recent study found that high levels of beta carotene in the blood were linked to three times the risk of aggressive prostate cancer.
RDA: None established. You can get what you need from dark green and orange fruits and veggies.
Vitamin C: There's no conclusive evidence that it prevents colds, heart disease, cataracts or cancer.
RDA: Men - 90 mg. Women - 75 mg. Smokers need an extra 35 mg. A glass of OJ will give you almost all you need.
Vitamin E: Large doses can thin the blood and may increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke in those with uncontrolled blood pressure. Has not been proven to protect the heart or prevent cancer.
RDA: 15 mg. An ounce of dry-roasted almonds will provide almost half your daily needs.
Selenium: Most Americans get enough of this trace mineral in their diet. One new study suggests that adding more via a pill may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
RDA: 55 mcg. Grab a tuna sandwich or a handful of Brazil nuts instead.
Folic acid: It’s a must during pregnancy to help prevent birth defects, but recent studies show no real effect for the rest of us against heart disease, cancer or depression. The connection between folate and reduced risk of Alzheimer's is not yet conclusive either.
RDA: 400 mcg. Find it in dark green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals and whole-grain breads.
Niacin: This B vitamin can be used to treat high cholesterol, but only under a doctor's supervision due to the risk of potentially serious side effects, including liver damage.
RDA: Men - 16 mg. Women - 14 mg. A multivitamin gives you 20 mg. Some products will give you 500 mg. Stick to meat, fish, poultry, nuts and eggs instead.
Lycopene: Two studies, one by the FDA, recently concluded that consuming lycopene as a supplement or in rich food sources, such as tomatoes, does not offer strong cancer-fighting protection, as was previously promoted.
RDA: None established. You should still eat tomatoes (tomato sauce is even better) because they're full of other important nutrients.
Iron: Only women who are pregnant or have heavy periods, as well as people with diagnosed deficiency disorders such as anemia, need extra amounts of this mineral. Iron supplements can interact with meds, other dietary supplements and food, and can worsen conditions like ulcers.
RDA: Women over 50 and all men - 8 mg. Women ages 19 to 50 - 18 mg. Red meat, poultry, fortified cereals, dried beans and lentils, and dark leafy greens are good sources.
Zinc: High doses can interfere with how the body metabolizes copper and iron, may weaken the immune system and may also reduce levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Studies are mixed about its effect on the common cold. Zinc supplements can also interact with certain drugs, including some antibiotics, blood pressure medications and NSAIDs.
RDA: Men - 11 mg. Women - 8 mg. Meat and poultry are high in zinc; vegetarians should eat plenty of grains, beans, nuts, lentils and dairy products.
*RDA is for general adult population. Some groups, such as pregnant or breast-feeding women, need more.
Vitamins. in summary: just like with anything, know what you're ingesting before you just blindly do something because you think you're supposed to.
Eating a healthy diet, low in salt and saturated fat, losing extra weight, exercising moderately, reducing stress, and quitting smoking are our best guarantees against disease and premature death.
Rather than just turning to pills as a remedy, eating a healthy, balanced diet may help you avoid those conditions in the first place.
The Vitamin Myth
Some vitamin supplements can boost your health, and others may actually cause harm.
Many experts agree that taking a daily multivitamin is a smart move, especially for those of us who don’t regularly eat whole grains, fresh veggies and fruit. Still, you may want to think twice about swallowing handfuls of certain supplements:
- Little Oversight
Consumers have no real way of knowing whether labels accurately reflect what’s actually in a pill.
That should change over the next few years, thanks to a new FDA ruling that says supplement manufacturers must ensure their products are tested for purity and accurately labeled.
- Dosage Dangers
Most people think of vitamins as natural and safe since they’re sold over the counter everywhere, including health food stores. And many consumers figure you can’t get too much of a good thing. But you can, particularly if you’re on prescription drugs.
What consumers tend to forget is that many processed foods and so-called diet foods are “fortified” with additional vitamins and minerals. Even some bottled waters, juices and sodas have added them in an effort to appear more healthy. If you eat and drink enough of these products, and take a few pills, you could be overdosing.
Reports show that though rare, bad side effects and even deaths do happen from vitamin overdose:
- neurological problems such as headaches, wobbliness and confusion, caused by too much folate without enough B6 or B12, or too much B12 without enough B6 or folate.
- Taking too much niacin without a doctor’s okay can lead to liver damage and other problems over time.
- Too much vitamin A increases the risk of liver and lung cancers, and can cause birth defects and reduce bone density causing osteoporosis
- Researchers found that men taking multivitamins more than once a day increased their risk of advanced prostate cancer by 32 percent and nearly doubled their risk of fatal cancer, compared with men who didn’t take multivitamins. The risk was highest in those who had a family history and also took selenium, beta carotene or zinc supplements.
- Megadoses of Vitamin E can increase the risk of bleeding if you’re already on heart meds like blood thinners. Consuming 400 IU or more of E a day was associated with a higher risk of dying and should be avoided.
- Even if a vitamin does no harm, it may do.... nothing.
- C for colds Many believe C will help stave off colds, but a study shows otherwise. It did work for some people such as marathon runners and skiers who undergo periods of high stress, but the study’s authors say the rest of us shouldn’t even bother taking it.
- Antioxidants Are they doing good, or harm? Test results are far too varied, but why take the risk if you can get what you need from eating the right foods?
- But they're not all bad.
Vitamin D plays an important role in the absorption of calcium and in boosting bone health. Adults under 50 should get 1,000 mg of calcium and 400 to 800 IU daily of vitamin D3 (the form of D that best supports bone health), and those 50 and older get 1,200 mg of calcium and 800 to 1,000 IU of D3 from food and supplements.
But vitamin D may do even more. Several studies suggest a link between vitamin D deficiency and cancer, as well as other diseases. And there seems to be little downside to taking vitamin D supplements.
Some people may need more than the standard recommended amounts of certain vitamins, including pregnant women, who require extra folic acid to help prevent birth defects, and the millions of young women with anemia, who may benefit from iron supplements. Postmenopausal women can take calcium and vitamin D to reduce fracture risk, and those at risk for age-related macular degeneration may benefit from antioxidant and zinc supplements.
- Getting vitamins and minerals from pills is not as effective as getting them from food.
Vitamins C and E and beta carotene protect the heart when you get them from food, but not from pills.