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Vitamins and minerals: Your changing needs

When it comes to getting enough vitamins and minerals, there’s no substitute for a healthful diet—plain and simple. What about supplements, you say? A good multivitamin may be helpful if your diet isn’t all it should be (and it’s downright foolish not to take prenatal vitamins when you’re pregnant), but megadoses of supplements can be dangerous and sometimes fatal. Still, there are times when your diet demands special attention. Following are a few cases that call for nutritional vigilance.

You’re pregnant

Because your baby draws from your calcium supply to build teeth and bones, you’ll need 1,000 milligrams a day. If you don’t like milk, don’t worry; there are plenty of other calcium-rich foods from which to choose. One glass of calcium-fortified orange juice, for instance, supplies 300 milligrams.

Getting enough folic acid (400 micrograms a day) protects baby from neural tube defects, which include a range of serious conditions such as spina bifida. Your prenatal vitamins probably provide the recommended amount, but include good sources of folic acid in your diet, too. Dark, leafy greens, whole-grain breads and citrus fruits are some good choices.

You need 27 milligrams of iron a day—usually supplied by prenatal vitamins—to keep up with baby’s extra demand. Take your vitamin with a glass of orange or grapefruit juice, since vitamin C helps your body absorb iron. Don’t wash it down with a glass of milk, though: Calcium interferes with the absorption of iron.

• You smoke

Think antioxidants—vitamins C, E and beta carotene—when it comes to filling your plate. Why? They disable cancer-causing free radicals—rogue molecules created in large numbers by smoking. (Ever wonder why smokers look so much older than their nonsmoking peers? Besides making you sick, free radicals also accelerate the aging process.) Aim for at least nine servings a day of fruits and veggies, rich sources of vitamin C and beta carotene. (For dietary sources of vitamin E, see the chart.) Oh, and by the way, QUIT!

You take oral contraceptives

Oral contraceptives may interfere with your body’s ability to absorb vitamin B6 and folic acid. Vitamin B6 fuels your brain, helps you fight stress and fends off illness by playing an important role in the immune system. Folic acid, meanwhile, plays a central role in the production of red blood cells. So keep these important vitamins in mind when planning your meals.

You’re menopausal

With age, your body becomes less efficient at absorbing vitamins and minerals, but eating right can nudge it in the right direction. Include vitamin D-rich foods in your diet to help your body absorb calcium—especially important at a time when protecting your bones is paramount. If you’re suffering from vaginal dryness or hot flashes, vitamin E-rich foods may bring relief. Zinc keeps the genital tract pliant, and magnesium improves mood, fends off insomnia and helps increase blood calcium levels. (If you’re feeling so stressed that you’re neglecting nutrition, this may be a time to consider taking a multivitamin.)

Never take megadoses of a vitamin without talking with your doctor. Think food first!