The best way to get the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need isn’t with a shopping spree at your local drugstore. It’s from food.

A good, balanced eating plan -- filled with fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, lots of fluids, healthier oils, good proteins, and whole grains -- should do the trick.

Still, many older adults have a hard time sticking to a healthy diet. There could be many reasons, like:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Trouble chewing
  • Fixed budgets
  • Trouble finding healthy foods

Add in that your body doesn’t work quite as well as it used to, and climbing Mount Nutrition can be tough.

Supplements might be an option. As part of a plan you and your doctor make, they can do just what their name says -- fill in the gaps in your diet.

But they aren’t always the answer. Take vitamin A -- important for healthy eyes, skin, and immune system.

“Vitamin A is somewhat of a controversial vitamin because you can get toxic from it," says Ronni Chernoff, PhD, associate director of the Arkansas Geriatric Education Collaborative.

Too much of it can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms. She adds that older people are more likely to have those when they take too much because their bodies don’t deal with the vitamin as well.

“If you take a vitamin that is designed to be a once-a-day supplement, that’s OK,” Chernoff says. “But you don’t want to take five of them a day.”

After talking with your doctor, if you decide you need a multivitamin, get a complete supplement, one that provides 100% of the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Take extra care when you:

  • Take more than one supplement
  • Use a supplement in place of medication
  • Take them along with over-the-counter or prescription drugs

“You want to make sure your left hand knows what your right hand is doing,” says Joan Salge Blake, EdD, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University.

How Vitamins Can Help

Older adults have different needs when it comes to vitamins and minerals. For example, the right amount of calcium can help fend off osteoporosis in women. Vitamin D, which helps your body take in and use calcium, also helps prevent bone loss and broken bones in older adults.

It’s sometimes hard to know exactly what you need. But if you have a balanced diet, you’re probably doing OK. If you’re still concerned, Robin Foroutan, a nutritionist from New York, suggests you ask your doctor if supplements might help.

Before you head to the store, though, it’s important to know the term “supplements” includes not only vitamins and minerals, but also herbs and other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and other things. Some are so-called specialty products like probiotics or fish oils.

Before you take anything, talk with your doctor and read labels.

What Might I Need?

You can find these in foods or on the supplement aisle:

Calcium. “There really should be no reason that people should be calcium deficient,” says Angel Planells, a dietitian from Seattle. Known for the role it plays in making your bones stronger, calcium is found in dairy products like milk and yogurt. Women -- especially those who are likely to have osteoporosis -- may think about taking calcium supplements. But talk to your doctor first.

Vitamin D. This nutrient, made by the body from sunshine, helps you take in calcium and phosphorus, so it’s key for healthy bones and teeth. Older adults don’t make it as well, so supplements can help make you less likely to have bone loss and broken bones.

Vitamin B12. This is important for keeping blood cells and nerve cells healthy. Aging affects how well you take in and use B12 from foods, so if you’re over 50, it’s probably best to get your B12 from supplements and B12-fortified foods like cereals, as well as foods that are rich in it, like meat, low-fat dairy, and fish.

Folate. This helps prevent anemia. Spinach, beans, peas, oranges, fortified cereals, and enriched breads can have it.

B6. This helps your metabolism and immune system. You can get it in fortified cereals and soy products, as well as organ meats and whole grains.  

Your body also needs these:

Vitamin C. Oranges, right? (And red and green bell peppers, along with other vegetables and fruits.) It may help protect you from cataracts, help wound healing, and possibly lower your odds of having certain kinds of cancer.

Magnesium. Among other things, it helps keep your blood pressure and blood sugar levels steady. It’s also good for your bones. You can get it in nuts, spinach, and dairy products, and it’s used to fortify some breakfast cereals. Experts aren’t sure how well it works as a supplement.

And here are some popular items you can find in the supplements aisle that you might talk with your doctor about:

Probiotics. Gut health is also very important for your immune system. Some studies show that probiotics -- living organisms like those found in yogurt -- help prevent some types of diarrhea and ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Coenzyme Q10. Also called coQ10, this is made naturally in your body and found in most body tissues. It may help your immune system work better.

Melatonin. A hormone released mostly at night, it’s believed to help you fall asleep. The science on it is promising.

Fish oil. The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings a week of salmon and other types of fish with omega-3 fatty acids. In supplement form, though, no studies have shown that it protects against heart disease. Omega-3s also may help with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

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