Vitamin Supplements... Do We Need Them?

Today, 40% of American adults take vitamin supplements regularly. In the Western states, 66% of the adults are vitamin users. Are they really necessary to good health?

New life-styles and different eating habits have emerged in the last decade. The average American eats only six meals at home a week. More than 15 million people skip lunch on a regular basis and many either skip breakfast or eat the wrong things.

Dieting has become the norm. Millions live watching their calories. Fewer calories often means fewer nutrients.

Actually, if we tried to get all our nutrients from food alone, some of us would gain weight, according to Dr. Donald Davis, a University of Texas nutritionist.

Women Need More

A 1985 USDA survey uncovered some shocking facts: women failed to meet the RDA's (Recommended Dietary Allowances) for calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, folacin and vitamin B6. Other USDA studies show Americans usually only get half the RDA for vitamin E and a third of the population consumes less than 70 percent of the RDA for calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamins C and A.

Research also has shown that even selecting a diet from the sacred basic four food groups-meat, dairy, cereal and produce- doesn't guarantee we will receive the recommended allowances of nutrients. And, Dr. Catherine Wotecki, of the USDA, says our diet will be distorted if we try to get all our nutrients from food. For example, to get enough vitamin E, she says, we'd have to eat far too much vegetable oil.

Vitamin E

"Vitamin E is increasingly hard to get from our food supply," says Karen Owens, registered dietitian. "Vegetable oil products, like salad dressings, are our primary source of vitamin E. You'd need to eat eight tablespoons of Italian salad dressing each day to meet the RDA. That's half a cup. And, salad dressing is mostly fat; exactly what we're all trying to avoid."

Owens says good nutrition is eating the right foods in the right amounts. It sounds simple. But eating habits are deeply ingrained and often a function of life-style- making them quite difficult to change.

Do Older People Have Different Vitamin Needs?

Don't assume Grandma and Grandpa can get by on fewer nutrients just because they are not as active as they once were. That widely held belief is being challenged by new research suggesting that the elderly need even more of some vitamins than the young.

A Tufts University study indicated that people over 60 may need about a third more vitamin B6 than young adults do to maintain good nutrition. Vitamin D consumption apparently should increase with age as well.

The elderly may not be able to process and synth-esize vital nut-rients as eff-iciently as younger people. Moreover, medications commonly prescribed for seniors, such as anti-inflammatory agents or diuretics, can hinder vitamin absorption. And because powers of taste diminish with age, old folks sometimes have flagging appetites and thus are in danger of not getting enough vitamins from their diets.

Natural vs. Synthetic

Be careful of product claims and advertising. For instance, all natural and synthetic vitamins except vitamin E are used by your body in the same manner. Natural source vitamin E is 36 percent more effective than synthetic.

To tell the difference, check the bottle label: "d" in front of the words alpha-tocopherol means it's natural source; "dl" means it's synthetic and made from petrochemicals.

Are pills as Good a Source as Food?

A pill cannot deliver the same range of nutrients as food, but what if you want a megadose of a particular vitamin?
Will a supplement do the trick, or would it be better to eat bushels of broccoli?

In theory, pills can provide dependable doses of genuine vitamins and minerals. "Vitamin C is a molecule, whether nature synthesizes it or man does," experts say.

But that assumes the pill is properly made which is not always true. In 1989 for instance, a study found that more than half of calcium carbonate supplements on the U.S. market could not be easily digested.

Pills with thick coating are suspect, while gel caps present the fewest problems. If well made, however, a pill is no worse than a vegetable at delivering selected nutrients to the body, and may work better for those who refuse to eat their greens.

Does it Matter Which Brand You Buy?

Buying vitamins can be a befuddling experience. Even if you can figure out the best formulation (with zinc or without?), quantity and dose, you probably don't know what to make of other scientific-sounding claims like "proven release" or "high absorbency." Pricing too can seem as arbitrary as the color of the pill.

Most advertising claims are just hype, but studies conducted in the U.S. several years ago showed significant brand differences in such characteristics as how fast a pill will dissolve in the body. Unfortunately, those surveys are out of date.

U.S. officials are setting up stricter standards for vitamins. Shoppers would do well to stick to brands sold by reputable stores and keep in mind that the highest priced pill is not necessarily the best.

Can You Survive by Pills Alone?

Call it the Jetson diet: a futuristic feast of prefab pellets containing all the nourishment any 21st century citizen would want. It makes for a nice cartoon fantasy, but could people really eat this way? Not a chance. Real food is here to stay.

Multiple-vitamin pills do not contain the fiber, carbohydrates and proteins necessary for maintaining the body and giving it energy.

Such nutrients can be put into pills, but they would have to be taken in such large quantities that they would be an impractical - not to mention tasteless - substitute for real food.

Food also contains a myriad of obscure nutrients, such as phenols, flavones and lutein, that scientists cannot yet fully understand, much less put into a safe, effective pill form. And many vital nutrients have undoubtedly not been identified at all. But even if a full-service nutrient pill were formulated, it probably could not satisfy some basic human desires: hunger and the joy of savoring good food.

To supplement or not- it's your choice. Check your life-style and eating habits. Are you eating properly? Are you willing to change your food habits? Vitamin supplements only cost a few cents a day. You decide. It may also be advisable to check with your physician or pharmacist before major changes in your diet.