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Vitamin and Mineral Supplements for Women

A look at women's vitamin and mineral needs, food sources, and supplements.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD

You do your best to eat right. You help yourself to fruits and vegetables, plenty of whole grains, and mostly healthy fats. Should you also take a vitamin/mineral supplement?

There’s still plenty of controversy. But new findings are providing clearer answers -- and better advice on how to spend your hard-earned health dollars.

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Food First

Many experts say most people should skip pills and concentrate on healthier diets.

“There are hundreds of compounds in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods from plants that work synergistically in ways we haven’t even begun to understand,” says David Rakel, MD, director of integrative medicine at the University of Wisconsin. “You can’t take one or two, put them in a pill, and expect to get the same benefits. A diet based on foods from plants offers the best defense against many chronic diseases.”

But many people don't always eat healthfully. Would a multivitamin help?

Multivitamins: Are They Worth It?

Supporters have long recommended multivitamins as insurance against falling short of essential nutrients.

“We know there are documented nutritional gaps in Americans’ diets, including vitamins C, D, E, calcium, and magnesium, among others,” says Andrew Shao, PhD, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplements industry trade group. Filling those gaps with a multivitamin makes sense, Shao says.

Whether or not multivitamins prevent disease is another matter.

In 2006, a panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health concluded that there wasn’t enough good data to say whether multivitamins help prevent disease.

One of the latest and largest studies, published in 2009, tracked for five years the health of about 77,700 people aged 50-70, comparing those who took supplements with those who didn’t.

“Taking a multivitamin had no effect at all" on participants' death rate during the study, says epidemiologist Emily White, PhD, of Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

"There was a hint that people who ate relatively poor diets did get some benefit from taking multivitamins," says White. But that benefit was small and could have been due to chance.

"If there’s any message in this, I think it’s that people should eat a healthy diet and not rely on multivitamins,” White says.

Some researchers worry that multivitamins may pose risks. A 2010 Swedish study of some 35,000 women showed a higher risk of breast cancer among those who took a multivitamin.

The researchers can’t explain that finding. Many factors affect cancer risk. The Swedish study doesn't prove that multivitamins caused breast cancer.

Antioxidants for Women

What about zeroing in on specific nutrients? Over the years, several become supplement superstars.

First came vitamin C, touted as a defense against everything from common colds to cancer. Next up was vitamin E, which seemed to guard against heart disease.

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