Q. I Eat Well and Am Starting to Work Out More. Will Taking a Supplement Make Me Healthier or Stronger?
Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.
A. Meet your nutrient needs with food first. Eating a balanced diet will give you all the vitamins and minerals most people—even athletes—need. In foods, vitamins and minerals work together with other nutrients, such as antioxidants, to provide health benefits that can’t be replicated in a pill. However, there may be instances where you want to add a supplement to your diet: 1) You have gaps in your diet that vitamin and mineral supplements can help fill—for instance, if you are lactose-intolerant and can’t drink milk, you may need to find another way to get calcium. 2) You need higher intakes of certain nutrients (e.g., calcium for teenagers and postmenopausal women). 3) If you’re physically active, it’s even more important to be sure that you’re meeting your nutrient needs, as some vitamins and minerals play into physical performance.
Nutrients athletes should focus on are iron, calcium and vitamin D. Iron helps carry oxygen to muscles; calcium is needed for bone growth and repair and is also involved in muscle contraction; vitamin D helps you to absorb calcium, and emerging research suggests it may improve performance. A multivitamin will help to meet these needs. Unless prescribed by a doctor, don’t supplement with these nutrients—or any others—individually. Also, keep in mind that as exercise increases metabolism, it also increases the production of harmful free radicals. So up your intake of fruits and vegetables to get plenty of antioxidants to mop up these compounds. As for supplements that promise performance-enhancing properties, buyer beware. Dietary supplements are regulated like foods, not drugs, which means manufacturers are not required to prove a product safe or effective before selling it.
In general, remember supplements should supplement a healthy diet, not stand in for nutrient-rich foods. (Does rinsing with mouthwash give you license to toss your toothbrush?) If, however, you think you may be falling short on a few nutrients and want some “dietary insurance,” consider a multivitamin/mineral supplement that delivers no more than 100 percent of recommended daily doses.
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