We all want to eat what nutritionists call a ‘balanced diet’, but very few manage to do so. Most of us don’t have the time or the energy to figure out the calorific and nutritive values — and, lately, the glycaemic index — of the things we eat or don’t eat. So, we take the easy way out: cut back on fats, sugars and starches and eat more greens. That done, we feel smug at the thought of having a healthy lifestyle.
A healthy diet is often not enough, especially if you are eating out a lot or are older than 35 years. Even for those who are young and eat a balanced diet, stress can hamper nutrient absorption, just as poor food quality can take away from its nutritive value. Not having enough of foods that enhance iron absorption — such as citrus fruits — or having too much alcohol, tea or coffee can also interfere with iron absorption.
A daily multivitamin and mineral supplement is a good way to start making up for these nutritional shortcomings. Most vitamin supplements available are usually a combination of the same small group of vitamins — A, E, D and K — with or without folate, iron and magnesium. What varies between different brands is the amount each nutrient is present in and whether some extra frills have been added, such as primrose oil, ginseng, ginkgo, Brahmi or green tea.
There is little scientific evidence to prove that these add-ons do anything for health. Since most are present in negligible amounts anyway, it is best to go for standard multivitamin and mineral tablets. A 30-day supply costs between Rs 50 and Rs 100, depending on the brand you are going for. Unproven claims are usually made to market specialised formulas of revitalisers and dietary supplements that promise to lower stress, enhance energy or minimise post menopausal symptoms for targeted buyers such as stressed individuals, women, men or the elderly. Since the claims made by diet supplements are not regulated by the Drugs and Cosmetics Act that monitors medicines, manufacturers pretty much say anything they want and leave it to the consumer to decipher what they are paying for.
Vegetarians and people who have too much alcohol or caffeine have a slightly higher risk of iron and vitamin B12 deficiencies, so supplementation should be taken. Since iron, vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies often co-exist, get blood tested for co-existing deficiencies. Already known to prevent severe birth defects and heart attacks, folic acid and B-complex vitamins have also been shown to prevent bones from breaking due to osteoporosis.
Vitamin supplements are not a substitute for food. While deficiencies may harm you, overdosing on vitamins such as A can cause toxicity with symptoms of yellowing of the skin, hair loss, headaches, dry skin, joint pain and birth defects. High levels of vitamin D can cause a vitamin K deficiency and reduce calcium absorption. Similarly, large amounts of minerals such as iron can decrease zinc, copper and calcium absorption, while too much folic acid interferes with zinc absorption.
Though doctors can prescribe the best combinations based on a person’s age, dietary habits and health problems, don’t let the treat of toxicity scare you from taking your daily dose. Toxicity happens only if you overdose, usually when a vitamin or mineral is being given at therapeutic doses.
Most supplements available over the counter come with daily recommended allowance (RDA) for each vitamin and mineral mentioned on the bottle. Since the dose contained in each tablet is well below the RDA, you are safe as long as you have the recommended amount.