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Do Vitamin Supplements Make Sense?

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 27, 2013 -- For years, women have been told to take extra calcium to guard against osteoporosis.

But doctors just reversed that advice. After looking at scores of studies, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says that common doses of calcium and vitamin D don’t prevent fractures in women past menopause who have healthy bones, and they may raise the risk of kidney stones.

That recommendation comes on the heels of two new studies showing that men and women with high calcium levels from supplements were more likely to die of heart disease than those who got less calcium or who got their calcium from diet alone.

Calcium is just the latest supplement to falter under scientific scrutiny. Other studies have questioned the value of fish oil, and antioxidants like vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene.

Does that mean you should ditch your daily calcium pill? What about other kinds of supplements?

Experts on both sides of the debate say that despite discouraging headlines, it’s still smart for some people to take supplements, depending on their individual nutritional needs.

“I think scientists are still trying to make sense of it all, particularly the latest calcium studies. In many cases the risks don’t appear to apply to all people,” says Carol Haggans, a registered dietitian who keeps up with the latest research for the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health.

Duffy MacKay, ND, cautions that nutrition research is complex and still “in its infancy.” He is vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a group that promotes supplements. 

Haggans says people should get two messages loud and clear:

  1. Whole foods nearly always top pills. “We need certain amounts of these vitamins and minerals, and it’s preferable to get them from eating a variety of healthy foods. That really should be the basis of what people are trying to do,” she says.
  2. More is not better. “When you’re starting to take individual supplements or higher doses, that’s when you can potentially get into trouble,” she says.

Here’s what science says about several other popular supplements:

Folic Acid

Women planning a pregnancy need at least 400 micrograms of folic acid from fortified foods or supplements each day, according to the National Institute of Medicine. Folic acid has been shown to prevent serious birth defects of the spine and brain. It may also cut a child’s chances of developing autism.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who started taking folic acid at least a month before their pregnancy and for eight weeks after conception had a 40% lower risk of having a child with autism than women who didn’t take folic acid.

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