Five experts talk about what they take and offer tips for getting the vitamins and nutrients you need.
Timothy Archibald for Newsweek
|Bruce Ames PROFESSOR, U.C., BERKELEY
He takes: Acetyl-carnitine, lipoic acid and a multivitamin
Tip: Try to eat well, but take a daily multivitamin for insurance
By Jennifer Barrett
Jan. 16, 2006 issue – If you eat a well-balanced diet, do you need to take a multivitamin, too? What about supplements such as calcium and fish oils? Can too many vitamins be dangerous? Each week, it seems, there’s a new study trumpeting the benefits—or the risks—of certain supplements. The findings can be confusing, even contradictory. So we went straight to the sources and asked five doctors who are leaders in the nutrition field what they take each day. The consensus: follow a nutrient-rich diet, but take a daily multivitamin as well (it can’t hurt and often helps). Each “guru” offered additional advice on supplements. Here’s a rundown of their recommendations, regimens and their reasoning.
If you want to age faster, a good way to do it is to be short of some vitamin or mineral. I think everyone in the world should take a multivitamin as insurance. I take one daily. Nutritionists don’t like the idea of telling people to take pills. They want people to eat better instead. But they’ve been trying for 25 years to change people’s eating habits without much success. You need to have a good diet with lots of vitamins and minerals, but we know lots of people don’t. So I say, try and eat well but take a multivitamin.
Everyone knows that diet is an important factor in cancer. We know obesity is a health disaster. There are 40 different diseases, including cancer, that are linked to obesity. The 10 leading sources of calories in the United States begin with sugary soft drinks, doughnuts and cake. There are very few vitamins and minerals in them. There’s not a vegetable in sight on that list, except for french fries and potato chips. Obesity is the result of a bad diet.
I also take a pill that has acetyl-carnitine and lipoic acid, which are used in the mitochondria (the cell’s energy center). In our studies, we gave both of them to rats and their brains functioned better and their immune systems improved—lots of good stuff. The pill is sold by Juvenon [a company Ames formed to license the combination of cell-rejuvenating supplements]. But I won’t take money from the company. It all goes to clinical trials. I didn’t feel very different after taking the pill. But I am a pretty spry 77. We’ve just completed a human trial now. The data hasn’t been released publicly yet, but I can tell you: it was successful.
JoAnn Manson PROF., HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL
She takes: Calcium (1,000mg daily), vitamin D, multivitamin
Tip: For best absorption, no more than 500mg of calcium per dose
Leah Gourley / HMS
I’m not particularly adamant about recommending multivitamins to everyone. I think some people do have diets that are adequately balanced and they can do without a multivitamin. But it is a good form of insurance, especially if your diet is not consistently balanced. I encourage people to try to get their vitamins and minerals from food sources, but I do recognize that a balanced diet isn’t always possible with our hectic lifestyles.
I take a multivitamin and calcium—500mg twice a day. It’s best not to take more than 500mg in any one dose because then you might not get full absorption of the calcium. I also take vitamin D (400 IU twice a day). There’s increasing evidence that vitamin D is important for bone health and also [for preventing] cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Most Americans are deficient in vitamin D, and American diets tend to be low in calcium. During pregnancy, I took folic acid, too. The amount of folic acid in a multivitamin (about 400mcg) is OK prior to conception. But once you’re pregnant you need to begin taking more folic acid. The folic acid you get in a multivitamin is also important throughout your life. These are the supplements for which I think the evidence is strongest.
Fish oil may also be beneficial for people who don’t eat a lot of fish with omega-3 fatty acids. It’s reasonable to consider fish-oil supplements and increased intake of flaxseed oil or alpha-linolenic acid. That has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Clinical trials of fish oils have been limited, and more research is needed. But there’s enough research to recommend at least two servings a week of fish or—if you eat very little fish—a fish-oil capsule, increased intake of flaxseed or alpha-linolenic acid.
We do a lot of research in this field and most randomized clinical trials of vitamin supplements have been disappointing, including those with vitamin E and beta carotene, and even folic acid for the prevention of cardiac problems. This underscores the importance of vigorous testing before making public-health recommendations. Some studies have even suggested risks with increased doses, especially beta carotene. We have to be concerned about taking megadoses of single supplements. Before we go out and recommend megadoses of vitamins, we need to ask if there are randomized clinical trials that show benefits.
Dean Ornish BEST-SELLING AUTHOR
He takes: Fish oil (three grams daily) and a multivitamin
Tip: Iron-free multivitamin for men, postmenopausal women
The most important supplement for peopleto be taking is fish oil. Just three grams a day may provide enormous benefits. It may lower the risk of heart attack or sudden cardiac death by 50 to 80 percent. It may reduce the risk of prostate and breast cancer. It may reduce depression. When given to pregnant and nursing mothers, it may increase a baby’s IQ. It helps with brain development… I take three capsules of fish oil a day (each with one gram). More than that doesn’t provide any additional benefit. I also take a multivitamin that is iron-free. You should take one without iron if you’re a man or a post-menopausal woman. The way to get rid of iron is to bleed, so menstruating women can bleed out the excess. Too much iron oxidizes the LDL cholesterol, which makes it more toxic and more likely to end up in the arteries. My multivitamin also has some selenium. One study found that 200 micrograms of selenium a day was associated with a marked decrease of a number of common cancers.
I think most people don’t get enough vitamins and minerals in their diets. But it’s silly to think that taking a multivitamin gives you the license to eat whatever you want. What you include in your diet is as important as what you exclude. There are at least 1,000 protective substances, found in certain foods, with anti-cancer, anti-aging and anti-heart-disease properties. You find these substances predominantly in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy products. Diet and lifestyle changes can be even more powerful than drugs and surgery. And the only side effects are good ones. You have a spectrum of choices—to the degree you eat more healthfully, you’re going to look good, feel good, lose weight and gain health. Joy of living is a much better motivator than fear of dying.
Marion Nestle AUTHOR, ‘WHAT TO EAT’
She takes: An occasional multivitamin
Tip: Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fatty fish
I don’t take vitamins regularly. Occasionally, if I’m having a bad day, I might pop a multivitamin. I don’t think there’s much evidence that Americans are vitamin-deficient, except for those who eat a peculiar diet or those who are sick. There’s so much vitamin fortification of foods now that it is pretty hard to be missing major vitamins—especially now that folic acid has been put into wheat.
The real problem with vitamins is that there are too many. The irony is that, in fortifying so many foods so that people with anemia would have their problems alleviated, food makers increased the risk for people with iron-overload syndrome [a rare but potentially fatal condition]. There are also increased cases in which taking too much of certain supplements like beta carotene or vitamin B is not a good idea. My general conclusion is that an unbalanced intake of vitamins isn’t a good idea, which is why taking a multivitamin isn’t a bad idea.
A better way to get your nutrients is through food: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthier fats like omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like salmon) and oils without trans fats. There’s so much attention being paid to nutrition problems, and vitamins seem like an easy solution. But if you eat real food instead of processed food, you shouldn’t have to worry about nutrients. If you eat a diet with a lot of junk food, though, it’s probably a good idea to take a multivitamin. If you have deficiencies in your diet, it is a reasonable form of insurance.
Irwin Rosenberg NUTRITION SCIENTIST, TUFTS
He takes: Vitamin B12 (200mcg weekly), vitamin D (400 IU daily)
Tip: If you don’t live in a sunny climate, vitamin D could be low.
Courtesy of Tufts University
I’m not opposed to multivitamins, but I’m not a big fan. Why would you take a big list of vitamins? The beauty of taking supplements is that, if they’re used effectively, you take those things you need in the right amount. Not everyone needs the same supplements. The only ones I take are related to my own susceptibilities. I take an acid-suppressing drug for a reflux condition. Acid is required for the digestion and bioavailability of vitamin B12 in foods, so I take a B12 supplement. Much of the B12 insufficiency that occurs with aging has to do with the loss of gastric acid. By the time you get up to age 80, 50 percent of the population isn’t making enough stomach acid, and that’s relevant to the increasing prevalence of B12 deficiencies.
I take vitamin D supplements because up here there’s a shorter part of the year in which you can provide for your vitamin D through sunlight. We’ve done studies and found that between the end of October and end of March, there’s virtually no vitamin D synthesis in the skin in Boston. I tend to take vitamin D through the winter, but I may do it all year round. It appears to be not only important in preventing osteoporosis but maybe cancer. And vitamin D absorption grows more limited as we get older. I do have concerns about getting too much, though. At high levels, vitamin D has been shown to have negative effects. [The maximum recommended daily dose is 2,000 IU for those 1 year and older; 1,000 IU for 0-12 months.]