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Supplements not meant to supplant nutritious diet

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MAYA SUGARMAN/daily bruin senior staff

By Heidi Redlitz

Oct. 20, 2009 11:02 p.m.

Color variety in consumed foods, rather than a monochromatic diet, is essential for maintaining proper nutrition.

The key to consumption of vitamin and mineral supplements is to see them as just that: nutritive sources taken in addition to a healthy, heavily fortified food base.

“The first recommendation for people should be to eat a variety of foods, to try to incorporate in (their) diet fruits and vegetables, instead of focusing on supplements,” said Susanne Henning, director of the Nutritional Biomarker Core Laboratory at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

The most effective method of obtaining proper nutrients from minerals and vitamins is to maintain a balanced diet based on color in plant-based foods that naturally contain a large variety of nutrients.

“I’ve always been a proponent of healthy diets to get all vitamins and minerals,” said David Heber, founding director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.

“(An individual should) choose colorful fruits and vegetables from seven different colors every day,” he said.

But with food consumption largely based on economic incentives, or on which foods the dining halls provide, variety is not always an option.

Acknowledging that an individual may not have the funds or resources to eat seven different colors every day, Heber said that taking a daily multivitamin is beneficial as a sort of assurance that an individual is receiving the Recommended Dietary Allowances of vitamins and minerals.

“The idea is to start out the diet first and then supplement,” Heber said.

“Just because you’re taking vitamins doesn’t mean to ignore your diet.”

Diet is important because while plant-based foods contain multiple vitamins in one serving, a specialized supplement contains only that particular vitamin it advertises.

So unless an individual has a particular deficiency, specific supplements are unnecessary for someone with a balanced diet, said Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, professor of neurosurgery and physiological science.

A balanced diet can include meat and dairy products, but the essential nutrients ­”“ folic acid, vitamins A, B, C and D ­”“ are found in plant-based foods such as spinach, carrots, tomatoes and whole grains.

Nevertheless, recommended daily amounts vary according to factors such as gender, age and individual needs. Because young adults are still mentally and physically developing, ingestion of calcium, folic acid and iron are important.

Women of child-bearing age, especially college-aged females, should be sure to have sufficient amounts of folic acid and calcium. Multivitamins would provide the RDA of 400 mg for folic acid and 1200 mg of calcium, said Heber.

Scientists have found little distinction between the nutritional values of the natural and the synthetic forms of vitamins and minerals.

“Vitamin C is vitamin C; it doesn’t matter if it’s from a supplement or an orange,” Henning said.

Although the chemical composition of a synthetic or natural vitamin is the same, there are a few exceptions in which the natural base of the vitamin is more plentiful than its synthetic form.

“With vitamin E, there are eight different forms that occur naturally, and the natural vitamin is about twice as potent,” Heber said.

In regards to animal products, omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in abundance in fish such as wild salmon, are essential for learning and memory. However, farmed salmon contain significantly fewer fatty acids than wild salmon because polyunsaturated fatty acids are produced not by the fish but by the plankton they consume.

Yet with the high cost of wild salmon, as well as the danger of its contamination by mercury, fish oil supplements are acceptable as a fatty acid source, Gómez said.

Although supplements are acceptable forms of obtaining proper daily vitamin and mineral requirements, daily dosage amounts of supplement pills should be monitored carefully.

“In regards to large doses of vitamins, like if you take huge doses of vitamins, your body shuts down and absorbs very small amounts,” Henning said.

“And too much (of one vitamin) is toxic because your body protects itself by absorbing it in small amounts.”

Therefore, consumption of supplements should be spread throughout the day, rather than in one dose, Henning said.

Additionally, Heber recommended that supplements be consumed with food and never on an empty stomach so that they can be absorbed with the food.

“(Supplements) work like any other medicine,” Gómez said.

“What it means is whenever people abuse too much in terms of eating supplements, they modify the chemistry of the body and brain.”

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