Not too long ago, food was considered medicine. Health practitioners encouraged patients to eat an apple a day to keep the colon healthy, drink milk to strengthen bones, eat carrots to maintain eye health, and get your daily fix of oranges to boost the immune system and prevent scurvy. At some point over the years, we moved away from using natural foods to support good health and the convenience of supplements became a popular alternative starting in the 1950’s and 60’s. But do we need supplements if we’re getting our nutrients from a balanced diet? This is not an easy question to answer.
As we age, our metabolism changes. At 80, foods (including vitamins and minerals) are not absorbed in the same way or at the same rate of absorption in our 30’s. Furthermore, the increased popularity of fast foods and packaged foods lends itself to diets that don’t provide us with Health Canada’s recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals. For example, the food guide (which is based on scientific research) suggests adults over 50 need more vitamin D (400 IU) and calcium to support bone health and reduce the risk of osteoporosis (Health Canada, 2012). It is extremely difficult to acquire the recommended daily amount (RDA) through diet alone. Supplements are a good alternative.
The key to understanding supplements, and whether they are right choice for you, requires a little reflection on your overall diet. Ask yourself: Are there challenges with absorbing certain vitamins due to age? Are you eating a balanced diet? If not, are there ways you can modify your diet to get the recommended daily dose of vitamins and minerals? According to Dieticians of Canada (2016), mature adults have a decreased ability to absorb or produce certain vitamins and minerals and should closely monitor their intake of the B vitamins (B6, B12), vitamin D, calcium and iron.
Vitamin B6 is found in foods like fish, potatoes, chicken and strengthen the immune system.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods like chicken, milk red meat, eggs and cheese. Vitamin B12 is available via tablet or injection (it is absorbed in the blood faster when injected). Low levels of B12 can cause anemia and neurological disturbances.
Calcium needs increase as we age (1200 mg per day is recommended), foods like milk, soy, milk, cheese yogurt are good sources. Calcium keeps our bones strong.
Most women over age 50 need just 8 mg of iron daily, a significant decrease from 18 mg per day required in younger adulthood. Men consistently require 8 mg per day throughout their adult life. Sources of iron are found in leafy green veggies, beef, chicken, fortified breakfast cereals. Low levels of iron cause symptoms like fatigue, headache, weakness, dizziness/lightheadedness, increased heart rate, chest pain.
Check with your health practitioner prior to starting any vitamin supplement regime.