Tue, 04 Mar 2003

Do we need food supplements?

Dear Melissa,

I am 32-year-old working mother with a two-year-old daughter. I've been working nine to 10 hours a day. In shopping malls, I see many shops offering food supplements. Do you think I need to take food supplements? What kind of food supplements do I need, natural or chemical ones? Thanks for your kind attention.

-- Lia

Dear Lia,

You are right, dietary (food) supplements can be found just about everywhere and have become a very profitable business. But just because they are out there doesn't mean we all need to take them.

Often, people take supplements they do not need. These supplements are excreted by the body in urine (such as vitamin C), while others are stored in the body and could, in very high dosages, actually cause health problems (such as vitamin A or fish oil).

You ask about the type of supplements -- natural or chemical. All supplements, unless they are simply herbs that have been dried and put into a capsule, are in some way chemically manipulated to become a shelf stable, capsule form. This is not a problem.

A bigger concern is the use -- or abuse -- of the word "natural". Manufacturers often use this word to put consumers at ease by creating the illusion that if something is natural, it must also be safe. Some of the most potent medicines in the world today, such as the heart medicine Digitalis, are made from "natural" herbs.

Stay away from any supplement that promises to make you lose weight or that seems to promise to solve all of your health problems with a few pills. A recent study in the United States found that of a wide variety of randomly chosen "herbal supplements", the majority contained only insignificant amounts of potent herbs. Some even contained grass and weeds and none of the ingredients listed on the label.

However, there are many vitamin and mineral supplements that can be useful when your diet isn't giving you enough of what you need.

As a woman, you should be particularly concerned about calcium in your diet. It is important to maintain adequate calcium intake so that you do not become at risk for osteoporosis, a disease that can result in weak and brittle bones later on in life.

Research indicates that most women do not get enough calcium in their diets. Although some vegetables and even tofu are sources of calcium, the most accessible forms are found in dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Many women, particularly those consuming Asian-style diets, may simply not get enough calcium.

It sounds like you lead a very busy, stressful life, so a multiple B vitamin may also be helpful, since these vitamins are needed for your nervous system. If you feel that you are simply not eating well because of your busy schedule, you could try taking a simple multiple vitamin with a B-complex.

However, you should never use supplements as a replacement for a diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals since food actually contains hundreds of different substances that interact in ways that a supplement simply cannot duplicate.

And don't forget to try adding some stress-fighting food to your diet!

-- Melissa