How often do you eat a cup of sautéed spinach? How about three servings of fatty fish, like salmon, per week? Probably not very often, but those are examples of foods and portions that are packed with the recommended amounts of essential nutrients. Research shows that Americans aren’t making the nutrition grade and, therefore, can lack important vitamins and minerals like folic acid, vitamin E, vitamin K and even vitamin C.
“Even if you follow a healthy diet, a busy lifestyle can make it difficult to obtain the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals from food alone,” says Elizabeth Somer, a leading registered dietician and author of several books, including “The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals.”
Data on dietary intake from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which used the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Healthy Eating Index to compare what people say they eat to recommended dietary guidelines, found that children and adults scored 56 points out of a possible 100 (equivalent to an “F” grade), while seniors fared only slightly better at 65 points (equivalent to a “D” grade). The American Heart Association (AHA) agreed with those findings in its 2013 report on heart disease and stroke, concluding that poor diet and lack of exercise are two of the main factors contributing to the high prevalence of heart disease in the U.S.
One easy way to maintain good nutrition is to enhance your diet with supplements; however, the frequency of new studies combined with the staggering number of supplements available makes it increasingly confusing to know what’s right.
Somer puts nutrition news in context, provides the facts for common misconceptions and offers realistic tips to meet daily nutrition needs:
Misconception 1: It’s realistic to obtain all essential nutrients from food.
Even experienced nutritionists have a hard time designing a diet that provides all the essential nutrients for one day and busy Americans often struggle to follow a highly regimented diet. That’s not to say it’s impossible but the best approach is to focus on eating nutrient-rich foods as much as possible – like dark leafy greens (good source of lutein for eye health), colorful fruits, whole grains, healthy proteins and fats (such as salmon, which is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA) – and fill gaps in nutrition with a daily multivitamin. “Another supplement I always recommend is fish oil, or a vegetarian source from algae, because DHA and EPA benefit eye, heart and brain health,” says Somer.
Misconception 2: Multivitamins have no health benefits.
Although recent studies report that vitamin and mineral supplements do not lower one’s risk of heart disease or cancer, these supplements are still proven to be beneficial to one’s health. “If a study found that people who drank water had no lower risk for dementia, would you stop drinking water?” asks Somer. “Of course not, because water, like essential vitamins and minerals, is crucial to health and there is no controversy over its importance for human nutrition.”
Misconception 3: Multivitamins are a waste of money.
Multivitamins are a relatively inexpensive tool to achieve proper nutrition. “No reputable health expert will argue that supplements can or should replace a good diet and a healthy lifestyle,” says Somer. “However, multivitamins and nutritional supplements are one factor in a pattern of living that is known to maintain overall well-being. Think of multivitamins as an insurance policy for optimal nutrition – they’re meant to supplement, not replace, a healthy diet.”
Fish Oil Supplements: Sound Science or Mostly Hype?
Among the many nutrition supplements trumpeted for potential health benefits, fish oil supplements have been among the most talked about. But as the research on fish oil continues to roll in, it’s still unclear whether the supplements provide all the touted benefits, or are as harmless as claimed.
Some of the possible benefits of fish oil that appeared in early studies of the supplement seem to have vanished. Along with the difficulty of isolating the effects of a single nutrient, it’s possible that those early studies had small sample sizes, or participants who were truly deficient in the nutrient. Since then, long-term studies have revealed potential harms from taking fish oil unnecessarily.
Fish oil supplements contain several vitamins and two significant omega-3 fatty acids, called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While these nutrients are important, like many vitamins, many people get sufficient amounts from diet. These fatty acids are found in a number of fish, so it is often recommended to get proper doses by eating oily fish twice a week.
Additionally, the amount of these fatty acids in a supplement can vary, so it is important to check the label. There are risks and benefits to the supplements, so it’s important to speak with your physician when deciding whether you are likely to benefit from taking them.