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Vitamins, supplements may be helpful for older adults

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Individuals should only take vitamins /supplements if their doctor recommends them.

When it comes to taking vitamins and supplements, most dieticians and physicians recommend a “food first” approach.

“Vitamins are intended to round out an individual’s diet in the circumstances that they are not eating a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. So that would be the purpose of a multivitamin,” said Elizabeth Tenison, who has a doctorate in health sciences, and is program director for the Master of Public Health in Nutrition at Temple University. She teaches nutritional biochemistry, medical nutrition therapy, nutrition and health, nutrition through the lifecycle and nutrition education and counseling in Temple’s College of Public Health.

Supplements can provide food ingredients that offer certain kinds of protection. For example, Tenison said, fish oil has a type of fat, omega-3, that has beneficial properties, including working as an anti-inflammatory that can help manage stress or chronic diseases.

“That’s one example of why we would have a supplement but really dieticians would recommend that you consume food first,” said Tennison, who in addition to a Ph.D., has a Bachelor of Medical Dietetics from The Ohio State University and a Master of Clinical Nutrition. “So, first, we would ask if someone would be willing to consume foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids. That is seafood, in general, fatty fish. Then some nuts, like walnuts, and flax seeds have omega fatty acids in them. And if a person isn’t willing or able to take that food for whatever reason, then we would recommend a supplement.”

Research has shown, when it comes to vitamin E, that there are more benefits from consuming it through food sources rather than through a supplement. And vitamin E is helpful in preventing dementia and cognitive decline, Tenison said.

Tenison cautioned that because there is no federal agency that provides oversight of the production of supplements, consumers should be very careful in selecting supplements to ensure that it has ingredients that are beneficial.

“You always want to optimize your diet,” Tenison said. “The nutrients you get from your diet are used for everything in your body. Every function. All your metabolism and digestion. How your heart beats.”

Most multivitamins have minerals that will give people who take them the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). The RDA is the average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy individuals and is often used to plan nutritionally adequate diets for individuals.

A good multivitamin provides about 100% of the RDA for the major vitamins, which are vitamin A, many B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D and vitamin E. A good multivitamin will also have major minerals,
including calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.

It is very rare for someone to overmedicate or overdose on vitamins but to be safe, Tenison said, consumers should stick to multivitamins that have no more than 200% of the RDA.

For older adults, Tenison recommends taking a vitamin D supplement, which is in a different category. “We get vitamin D from sun,” she said. “It’s absorbed into our skin, and it goes through our body and is changed from one form to the other. But most people, especially in the northern climates, like Pennsylvania, don’t get enough sun. It’s estimated that 50-70% of older adults don’t have enough vitamin D in their bodies. So, a vitamin D supplement is something that most people would benefit from.”

If an individual is unable to eat a variety of foods, it would be valuable to work with a health professional to identify the appropriate supplements to take. Tenison recommends speaking with your doctor before purchasing vitamins or supplements from a pharmacy. “There are less expensive choices,” she said. “Or they could get a prescription for some supplements and then it might be covered by Medicare.”

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Categories: Health Milestones eNews


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