A Simple Cure for Confusion: When It Comes to Nutrition, It's Easy to Overdose on Information, a Lot of Which May Be Inaccurate. Experts from Harvard Sort out a Few Issues

Newsweek, January 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

A Simple Cure for Confusion: When It Comes to Nutrition, It's Easy to Overdose on Information, a Lot of Which May Be Inaccurate. Experts from Harvard Sort out a Few Issues


Byline: Adapted from "The Benefits and Risks of Vitamins and Minerals: What You Need to Know," published by Harvard Medical School; "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy," by W. C. WILLETT, M.D., with P. J. SKERRETT, Simon & Schuster Source, 2001, and the Harvard Health Letter. For more information visit health.harvard.edu.

The human body is a marvel and a mystery. Maintaining the ideal balance of nutrients, the goal of every health-conscious person, can be a challenge. Expert opinions vary and even the basic rules can be difficult to understand. Should you take a multivitamin every day? Is milk good for you or not? What about pizza? Here, then, some informed opinions.

VITAMIN PILLS

Before there were pills, there was food. And as a general rule, the best way to get your daily vitamin requirement is in foods, which often are rich in several vitamins as well as fiber and other health-giving substances. Twenty years ago doctors believed that the typical U.S. diet provided adequate vitamins, and that very few of us needed to take vitamin pills. In the United States and other developed nations, full-blown vitamin-deficiency diseases have been rare for decades because most people eat foods that prevent them. In recent years, however, modest vitamin deficiencies have been implicated in a variety of illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and birth defects. As a result, an increasing number of experts recommend daily vitamin pills. There are three substances in particular that people need to be sure they get enough of: folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

Folic acid, when taken early in pregnancy, reduces the risk of birth defects in the baby's brain and spine. Folic acid should be taken every day, and by all women of childbearing age--since women may not know they are pregnant in the critical first weeks of pregnancy. There is also evidence that higher levels of folic acid may reduce the risk of heart disease and colon cancer in all adults, and breast cancer in women who consume alcohol. Although more foods are being fortified with folic acid, some people still do not get enough in their diet. We recommend that all women of childbearing age take a pill with at least 400 micrograms daily.

Vitamin B12 is important for the health of blood cells and nerves. Inadequate levels can cause anemia, numbness in the arms and legs, memory loss and confusion. Vitamin-B12 deficiency also may increase the risk for heart disease and strokes. Vegans are vulnerable because they do not eat meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and eggs--key dietary sources of vitamin B12. Adults over 50 are also at risk because they often have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food. For these groups, a multivitamin or B12 pill each day is a good idea.

Vitamin D is essential in helping to absorb calcium from food, and directly aids the growth and strength of bones and teeth. A new study suggests that low levels of vitamin D could be related to the nonspecific aches and pains that plague many people. And researchers are studying the theory that vitamin-D deficiency makes people vulnerable to multiple sclerosis. Only fatty fish and dairy products fortified with vitamin D provide it in the diet. You need increasing amounts as you get older, and people living in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere are particularly vulnerable to deficiency--because our bodies make vitamin D in response to sunlight. Women over 50 should definitely take a pill with 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily--the amount in a typical multivitamin pill. It's probably a good idea for men over 50 as well. Doses of more than 2,000 IU daily can be toxic.

CALCIUM

There's no debate about whether you need calcium in your diet. You absolutely do. But experts disagree on how much calcium you need and the best food sources of it. Calcium gives bone its strength; about 99 percent of the calcium in your body is in bone. …

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