Over 50? To a healthy diet add a dose of inexpensive vitamins


January 26, 1993|By Colleen Pierre, R.D. | Colleen Pierre, R.D.,Contributing Writer

Now that baby boomers are turning 50, some may wonder how we'll restructure "old age."

We're already a vigorous generation, determined to live, live, live until we die.

Our interest in healthy aging benefits folks now in their 90s and 100s who are trading "tea and toast and plenty of rest" for pumping iron and vitamin cocktails.

In recent years we've begun to recognize that we need fewer calories as we age, but just as many, if not more, nutrients as before. So the older we get, the more carefully we must choose.

In fact, increasing vitamins after 50 is suggested by Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, associate director of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.

According to the Environmental Nutrition Newsletter, for people over 50, Dr. Blumberg recommends 2 mg of B-6, 2.6 mcg B-12, 250 mg vitamin C, 400 IU vitamin D, 100-400 IU vitamin E, 400 mcg folate, 1,000 to 1,500 mg calcium and 6 mg beta carotene.

Dr. Blumberg's suggestions are related not to the stress of aging but to the prevention of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and cataracts.

These levels of vitamins C, D, E and calcium would be difficult to achieve by diet alone. However, the combination of a well-selected diet and carefully chosen supplements would work.

Now the warnings about supplements.

We're not talking great mega-dose here, but modest increases that could be achieved by a multivitamin along with a carefully chosen eating plan.

Read the label of any supplement you choose, and don't take more than you need.

I always get edgy when we start to talk about supplements because of the great American belief that if a little is good, more is better. And if it's expensive, that's better still.

I am appalled by the marketing of gigantic, horse-sized vitamins (is the size supposed to be related to potency?) in outrageously expensive little "daily dose" packs by health clubs, pyramid sales groups and convenience stores.

Vitamins are chemical compounds that are identical whether they come from a natural or synthetic source. A full day's supply fits comfortably in a small tablet. The least-expensive store brand is the same quality as the most-expensive daily packs. If you're paying more, you're getting ripped off.

Be careful with mega-doses. When it comes to getting vitamins from food, it's nearly impossible to get too much of the water-soluble vitamins like B-6 or C. But extreme mega-doses of B-6 (above 100 mg) have been shown to produce nerve damage. Excessive vitamin C (500 to 3,000 mg) often produces chronic diarrhea or nosebleeds. The fat-soluble vitamins A and D are toxic in large, long-term overdoses.

And don't forget the "well-chosen diet" part. You could take all the supplements in the world and still eat too much fat, too much sodium and too little fiber. These all play a part in your risks for heart attack, cancer, high blood pressure and stroke.

In fact, if you start eating enough whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and non-fat dairy foods, you probably won't need the supplements at all.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore.

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