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10 things to remember about dietary supplements

Do high-potency multivitamins and supplements add more “fuel” to our bodies than three square meals a day? Will extra vitamins help ward off disease, boost energy and bridge the gaps caused by poor eating habits?

Frankly, there are no easy answers, medical experts say. Most people have no real need for anything beyond a daily multivitamin, assuming they’re eating nutritiously. For them, pursuing extra vitality with mouthfuls of pills is at least a drain on the pocketbook; at worst, it could be harmful.

What vitamins do

That said, we do need to constantly restock our bodily supply of the 14 vitamins and 16 minerals known to be essential to good health. Almost all these compounds occur naturally in the plants and animals we eat; very few are produced by our bodies. Vitamins are used for thinking, growing, fighting germs, digesting food, manufacturing blood cells and DNA and burning calories. Yet our bodies can store only trace amounts of each vitamin and mineral at any one time.

The current American health-food craze has placed the spotlight squarely on the issue of nutrition and supplements. While Americans spend billions annually on vitamins, scientists have conducted important studies to verify claims and clear up some of the confusion about these nutrients. If you take vitamins or are considering adding them to your daily regimen, remember these 10 guidelines:

Give yourself credit. Despite ads exhorting us to eat a more balanced diet, most Americans are already doing just that, experts say. Fact is, most of us have no gaping vitamin or mineral deficiencies that require supplementation.

Stay basic. For the vast majority, a simple multivitamin each day is more than adequate to meet nutrition needs. Find a product that provides 100 percent of the daily value (DV) of vitamins and minerals.

Get them from food. Getting vitamins and minerals from food is a better bet than taking pills. That’s because food also has other natural goodies our bodies need, such as fiber, protein and phytochemicals to fight illness.

Opt for fortified. Foods such as breakfast cereal come fortified with vitamins and minerals. Are they a better delivery system than vitamin pills? The American Dietetic Association says yes, especially for hard-to-get-enough-of compounds like folate.

Think it over. There is no convincing evidence that megadoses of vitamins can stop cancer, heart disease, colds or aging. In fact, some studies indicate that popping high doses of supplements may do more harm than good.

Address special needs. Pregnant women need extra folic acid to guard against neural tube defects and more iron to deliver oxygen to the fetus. Smoking depletes many vitamin reserves, including B6, B12, C, niacin and folate.

Choose wisely. Don’t overindulge. If 100 milligrams (mg) is good, is 500 mg better? No. Hypervitaminosis—doctor-speak for vitamin overdose—may result. Examples: Excess vitamin A ups your risk for fetal abnormalities; vitamin E thins blood; excess niacin irritates ulcers and causes liver damage.

Know your stuff. Look for products bearing the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) testing label for strength and purity. Check expiration dates for freshness. Consider money-saving generic brands. And don’t fall for those costly “natural” vitamin-herbal products—plain synthetics work just as well.

Keep your perspective. Vitamins are one facet of improving health and are neither a magic bullet nor as important as controlling your weight, staying fit and avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol. Without controlling those factors, too, vitamins make very little difference.

Tell your doctor. Always let your doctor know that you take vitamins, even if it’s a simple multivitamin at breakfast. Some supplements can interfere with your medications and even with one another.