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    Do Vitamin Supplements Make Sense?

    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.

    Beta-Carotene

    The body turns beta-carotene into the antioxidant vitamin A.

    Foods rich in beta-carotene, such as leafy greens and orange and yellow vegetables, lower the risks for cancer and heart disease. But studies show beta-carotene supplements don’t lessen cancer or heart disease risks in healthy adults and may raise the risk of lung cancer in smokers and people exposed to asbestos.

    Vitamin B12

    Vitamin B12 helps the body make red blood cells. It also aids nerve and brain function.

    B12 is bound to the protein in animal products. Younger adults usually get plenty of this key nutrient by eating meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, and fortified cereals.

    Older adults lose the ability to separate B12 from protein, which can cause a deficiency. The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults over age 50 take B12 supplements, which are easier to absorb. Vegetarians who don’t eat breakfast cereals may also need supplements.

    Fish Oil

    Studies have found that eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids lowers the risk of heart attacks and strokes, but the evidence supporting the use of fish oil supplements is mixed.

    A large research review published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people taking fish oil pills didn’t have lower rates of heart attacks, strokes, or deaths compared to those who took placebo pills. According to the researchers, while many of these large studies have limitations, the results did not seem to justify the use of omega-3 supplements as an intervention for heart disease prevention in some people.

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