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Vitamins can help, but you still should eat your broccoli

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You wouldn't need a daily vitamin pill if you had a good, healthy diet.

But you don't, do you? So there you stand in the pharmacy aisle, looking at more vitamins and supplements than you could haul off in a Hummer and wondering which is right for you.

"If you feel like you're not eating especially well all the time, a multivitamin is probably a good insurance policy," said Stephanie Tranen, a registered dietitian at the Medical University of South Carolina.

That goes for the child who's a picky eater as well as the elderly shut-in who no longer relishes meals. But to get the nutrition in, say, broccoli, it's best to eat broccoli, she said.

"For healthy people, eating well is the first step," Tranen said.

Nutrients in broccoli such as vitamins A and C, iron and calcium aren't as easily absorbed from a capsule or pill, she said. But the same nutrition in broccoli "is right there in an absorbable form that the body recognizes."

There's no way a daily pill - or a handful of pills - can make up for a lifetime of lousy nutrition and sloth. Still, some vitamins and supplements are known to be vital at certain stages of life.

Examples: Nursing infants may need vitamin D if they don't get enough from sunshine. Pregnant women are advised to take folic acid, to guard against certain birth defects. Menstruating women may need extra iron. And calcium supplements can boost the bone health of those who don't get enough in their diets.

Occasional extra calcium is what Tranen takes, plus aspirin for heart health. At 57, she's a dietitian who practices what she preaches, getting her five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

She doesn't even see the need for trendy fish oil.

"I eat fish," she said.

Taking a slightly different tack is registered dietitian Miriam Hendricks at the Greenville Hospital System in Greenville, S.C.

She cautions that some people overdo it with vitamins - she has seen patients lose their hair because of too much vitamin A, for instance. But she's open to the idea that supplements, including herbal supplements such as gingko biloba and ginseng, may have benefits.

Taking those two herbal supplements "certainly is not going to hurt you," she said. "It may waste your money."

Hendricks, 61, takes a multivitamin, calcium, aspirin, vitamins E and C, gingko and ginseng. She said some doctors prescribe fish oil for patients with high triglycerides (fats in blood) and low HDL (the so-called "good" cholesterol).

Asking your doctor and doing your homework are important, dietitians stress. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate most supplements' claims.)

Many unneeded supplements simply pass from the body in urine, but others can accumulate dangerously, cause pain or counteract the effects of other nutrients and medications.


Here are some conclusions of two Harvard doctors who reviewed 30 years of research on vitamins. Their findings were published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

-Most adults don't get enough vitamins from their diets and would benefit from taking multivitamins.

-Folic acid (folate) and vitamins B6 and B12 can cut the risk of heart disease.

-Folic acid may decrease risks for neural tube defects in newborns, as well as some cancers, including colorectal and breast cancers.

-Vitamin E and lycopene may cut the risk of prostate cancer.

-Vitamin D, when taken with calcium, is linked with decreased risk of bone fractures.

-Taking a multivitamin is cheaper and simpler than taking separate supplements.

-Doctors should monitor patients' intake of vitamins to make sure they receive enough nutrients but not excess vitamins, which could be hazardous.


Q: What's the difference between "recommended daily allowance" and "daily value"?

A: No difference; the latter term is the newer one.

Q: Does it matter when vitamins or supplements are taken?

A: Yes. They are absorbed better if taken with a meal.

Q: Even if supplements don't really help, they can't hurt, can they?

A: Some can, so check with a doctor or dietitian. Some cautionary examples: Kava, an herbal supplement, is linked to liver problems. Vitamin A from retinol may raise risks of birth defects, liver complications and hip fractures. Vitamin K can interfere with blood thinners.

Q: Which supplements will give me more energy?

A: None. Energy comes from calories, not from vitamins or minerals.

Q: How can I research supplements online?

A: Try these sites: (independent test results) (tips from the Food and Drug Administration) (a wealth of articles and links) Visit the State at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. 

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