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Vitamin Pills: Popping Too Many?

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A morning multivitamin. A couple of E's. Maybe some C. A protein shake for lunch. A calcium pill or two, later in the day. We've come a long way since our Flintstones days. But are Americans overdoing it?

 

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It's true, vitamin-fortified foods are flying off store shelves. Even orange juice comes with calcium and vitamin D. Energy bars, meal-replacement drinks, protein shakes, cereal bars, cereal itself -- all claim lots of vitamins and minerals, up to 100% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

 

Then, too, specially blended multivitamins -- with hot new "additives" such as green tea -- are nearly irresistible to health nuts.

 

But you do the math: You could be getting up to 500% of the RDA, maybe more, in one day's time -- up to five times what your body needs. Are we toting up toxic levels of vitamins? Or throwing our money away?

Experts Weigh In

Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta, counsels plenty of people who are overdoing it.

 

"If you're eating two energy bars a day, plus a protein shake that is vitamin fortified, plus taking vitamin supplements, you don't need all that," says Rosenbloom.

 

But most people still aren't getting the right vitamins despite their best efforts, says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. "Most people need a multivitamin as 'insurance.' Everybody needs to eat more healthfully. While you're trying to get there, take supplements."

 

In fact, many people don't know what they're taking, Rosenbloom says. "They're picking up OJ at the store, and they don't know what's in it -- is it calcium-fortified, they don't know. People are taking vitamin C supplements but don't know how much."

A Tidbit of Data

A couple of years ago, the Institute of Medicine issued a report listing "tolerable upper intake level" for all vitamins and minerals -- the maximum safe amount that anyone should take.

Vitamin A

The upper tolerable limit for adults is 10,000 IU for vitamin A. You get it from animal foods, fish, and dairy products. Also, beta-carotene (from orange and yellow veggies) gets converted to vitamin A in the body. "But the body is smart enough that it doesn't convert all that to vitamin A," Rosenbloom explains. 

If you're taking a multivitamin that contains 5,000 IU, plus getting A-fortified foods in your diet, plus eating foods that contain vitamin A, you're probably OK. "It's the supplements we worry about. It's easy to overdo it with pills," she says.

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