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Multivitamins Offer Balanced Nutrition in a Capsule -- But Be Careful

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Eating a balanced diet for good health is widely publicized, but not widely practiced.

That's why medical experts suggest a multivitamin with the recommended levels of vitamins and minerals.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year called it "prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements."

But experts caution against overdoing it and still say whole foods are your best bet.

That doesn't faze Frey Allyn, who questions today's soil quality and doubts it can offer all of the necessary nutrients in food, even under organic conditions.

He and his girlfriend stock three kitchen cabinets with vitamins, minerals and herbs in their Seattle home.

In a supplement, Allyn looks for content and quality. He's wary of hyped claims, and switches multivitamin brands every few months so his body doesn't get used to any one product. He also decides what to take based on blood type and nutritional astrology.

"The good ones are really careful about listing everything that's in their product," said Allyn, who has taken an online course about herbs and nutrition and stays current through consumer and trade magazines.

In the morning, after an organic lemon-cayenne powder-warm water cocktail to cleanse his digestive system, Allyn downs a protein powder drink, several thousand milligrams of vitamin C and plenty of plants and herbs such as kelp, dandelion and gingko.

He boosts his day with additional C, then winds down for bed with various minerals, anti-oxidants and amino acids.

And there's also parsley to rid the meat residue from his body.

"Most people would think just eat your parsley and salad, but sometimes, convenience-wise, it's just much easier to have it in the capsule," said Allyn, 34, a graphic design student at Shoreline Community College.

It takes weekly shopping trips, $100 a month and three stores to keep Allyn stocked. "The perks of having a girlfriend in the vitamin business" means frequent samples and trips to trade shows.

In their kitchen cabinets, plastic Lazy Susans help organize the bottles.

A tiny note taped to one shelf tells Frey to stay away from his girlfriend's supply; he's been known to swipe a few here and there.

Allyn knows a doctor would advise trashing much of his stash. He makes sure he's not too toxic or low on anything by having his hair analyzed.

"If you're taking a lot of these vitamins, I think it's important to know," he said. "As long as I'm taking the hair test and I'm feeling good, to me that's enough."

Want some other advice? Here's what experts say you should consider when shopping for a multivitamin:

Content -- Does it contain the basic nutrients at recommended levels or close to it?

The most recent standards set by the National Academy of Sciences can be found at under "Dietary Reference Intake Tables."

Also check with a health care provider to see if added herbs or high levels will interact with prescription drugs you're taking or cause other adverse effects.

Tailor-made formulas based on age, gender and physical activity are popular, but the JAMA study hesitated to back this practice, saying there's not enough evidence to support its effectiveness.

"There are differences between what people need, (but) there aren't as many differences as you see with all the vitamin choices that you have," said Patricia Freund, a registered dietitian at Group Health Cooperative.

Megadoses -- "Some people are under the misperception that more is better," said Marian Neuhouser, a senior staff scientist and registered dietician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Watch for excessive levels, which could be useless, cause side effects or be toxic.

Studies of fat-soluble vitamin A, for instance, have shown that high levels can lead to fractured hips and bones, birth defects and liver problems. Some manufacturers, including the makers of Centrum, have responded by lowering values after the NAS revised its recommended level for vitamin A (from retinol, not beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A).

Claims -- The largely unregulated supplement industry isn't supposed to make medical claims, but that doesn't stop it.

Check for a "USP" seal of approval, which means the product meets the United States Pharmacopeia's standards for strength, purity, disintegration and dissolution. The testing, though, is paid for by the manufacturer and does not verify any health claims made.

Research -- "There's research going on all the time," said Dr. Donald Hensrud, a physician nutrition specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "There's a lot of information out there, much of which isn't reliable."

Note if the findings refer to nutrients in natural or supplement form. Most research has focused on the former.

Also be careful of negative effects. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a study last week that found smokers and drinkers who took beta-carotene supplements to help thwart cancer actually increased their risk for it.

The report confirmed similar published research.

"Consumers don't need to go and buy every supplement that's out there," Neuhouser said. "The best source of nutrients is food, not supplements."

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