Women try to include more healthy options in their diet — fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains. Many experts still advise women to concentrate on healthier diets, rather than focusing on pills and supplements.
Many experts were of the opinion that multivitamin supplements are the best way to compromise for the inadequate levels of vitamins in certain food. According to Andrew Shao, PhD, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a supplements industry trade group, there are known gaps in the nutrition of a typical American, including vitamins C, D, E, calcium, and magnesium, which can be filled by the intake of multivitamins. But it is still not clear whether multivitamins are capable of preventing diseases. In 2006, a panel of experts from the National Institutes of Health reported that there is not enough evidence to prove that multivitamins help to prevent diseases.
In one of the large studies, researchers tracked the health of 77,700 people between the ages of 50-years-old and 70-years-old for almost five years. They compared the health of those participants who took supplement with that of who did not. Emily White, PhD, of Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, reported that taking multivitamin supplements did not have any effect on the death rate of the participants. “Those people who had a poor diet benefited from the intake of supplements," White adds.
Some other studies showed that multivitamins may pose health risks to those who are taking it. In 2010, a study conducted in 35,000 women in Sweden showed that those who took multivitamin had a higher risk of breast cancer when compared to those who did not. But the researchers could not explain the finding from study. There are a number of factors that affect the risk of cancer. The study conducted in Sweden could not prove that multivitamins caused breast cancer.
Through the years, many specific nutrients have become very popular among women, one being antioxidant. The first one among them was vitamin C which was considered as an antidote to everything from common cold to cancer. This was followed by vitamin E which was heralded as the vitamin to prevent heart diseases. But many recent studies have shown that taking antioxidants like vitamin C, E and beta carotene in the form of pill does not offer any special benefits. In fact, it is associated with some risks.
A review of scientific literature conducted in 2007 showed that vitamin E, C and beta carotene supplementation is linked to a higher death rate in some groups. Another large study, conducted in 24,000 Swedish women in 2010, reported that vitamin C supplementation is associated with a higher risk of developing cataracts. But these studies do not show that vitamin supplementation causes these diseases.
Marji McCullough, ScD, RD, strategic director of nutritional epidemiology at the American Cancer Society, says that no studies have shown that antioxidant supplements can prevent cancer. There may be some risks associated with taking this supplementation, he adds. So the ideal way is to have a diet rich in fruits and vegetables rather than depending on pills.
It goes without saying that calcium is very much required for strong bones throughout life. According to the recommendation by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the amount required by different age group is:
- children betweeen 12-months-old and 3-years-old need 700 mg of calcium per day
- children between 4-years-old and 8-years-old need 1,000 mg per day
- adolescents between 9-years-old and 18-years-old need 1,300 mg per day
- adults between 19-years-old and 50-years-old need 1,000 mg per day
- women over age 51-years-old need 1,200 mg per day
But Robert Heaney, MD, a Creighton University professor of medicine and an expert on calcium and vitamin D, suggest that pills are not the best way to get calcium. Body needs both protein and calcium for healthy bones. “So the best source is dairy products," he adds.
The levels of calcium in some of the common foods are:
- 8 ounces of yogurt: 415 mg of calcium
- 8 ounces of milk: 300 mg
- 3 ounces of salmon: 181 mg
Many foods like orange juices are now fortified with calcium. A number of plant foods like tofu and leafy greens are also rich in calcium. But many people still have a deficiency of calcium in their diet and will have to depend on calcium supplementation. Many studies have shown the benefits of taking calcium supplementation. Calcium carbonate and calcium citrate are two common options.
Adequate calcium in the diet may prevent high blood pressure. Still, food sources of calcium are better than pills. In a study, conducted by the researchers of Harvard School of Public Health, women who had more low-fat dairy products had less chance of developing high blood pressure. Calcium supplements, on the other hand, did not have any effects on the blood pressure.
Vitamin D is another addition to the supplementation chart because of the growing evidence about the importance of this vitamin in health. A deficiency of this vitamin may result in fatigue, joint pain, high blood pressure, certain forms of cancer, and other health problems. The results of a study conducted in 2010 showed that people who took up to 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D had lower risk of heart disease.
As per the IOM recommendation, people up to 70-years-old need 600 IU of vitamin D per day, while those above 70-years-old need 800 IU of vitamin D in a day. Many studies show that levels up to 50 on 25-hydroxyvitamin D blood test may keep the person healthy. “People who work outside on a sunny day would have up to 80 levels of vitamin D in blood," says Heaney.
The most natural way to improve the levels of vitamin D in blood is through exposure to sunlight. Some doctors encourage their patients to be in the sun without sunscreen to make vitamin D, naturally. “But this should be done without getting a sunburn," says Rakel. Moderate exposure to the sun can have good health benefits.
But many experts stress the importance of wearing sun block on the face as it is at high risk for skin cancer. Exposure to sun to raise the vitamin D levels is less effective in the case of dark people and the effectiveness reduces with age for all people. If you are person who work indoors or who are living in the northern latitudes, vitamin D supplement can be considered. Opt for supplements that contain vitamin D3, the most easily absorbed form of the vitamin.
Folic Acid and Choline
These nutrients are crucial for women of childbearing age. Folic acid is very important in making new cells and a deficiency of this nutrient is associated with an increased risk of birth defects that affect the development of brain and spine of the fetus. The average requirement for a woman of childbearing age is 400 micrograms of folic acid every day.
One can get enough folic acid by:
- Taking a multivitamin that contains 400 micrograms.
- Eating a breakfast cereal fortified with 100% of the daily value (DV) for folic acid.
Choline is also important in preventing birth defects in children. Choline is involved in the growth of blood vessels in the brain. A survey shows that less than 15% of women get enough choline in the diet. Pregnant women should get 450 mg a day, and lactating women should ideally have 550 mg a day. Eggs, liver, chicken, beef, pork, milk, and a variety of vegetables and grains are all rich sources of this nutrient.