The bloated truth about supplements

Diet: You're much better off eating a balanced meal than buying into the hype, says a nutritionist.

Life After 50

March 10, 2002|By Korky Vann | Korky Vann,Special to the Sun

Looking for the fountain of youth? If you believe those television ads depicting active, healthy seniors downing cans of liquid nutritional supplements, you might be tempted to think it's been bottled and placed on a grocery shelf near you.

But before you rush to stock up on "meals in a can," chew on this: Experts say most people can get the nutrient requirements they need from eating a well-balanced diet.

"These supplements are touted as energy boosters and essential to good health for anyone over 50," says Patricia Froberg, registered dietitian and consulting nutritionist for the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. "The truth is, nobody's learned to package vitamins and minerals as well as Mother Nature."

Liquid nutritional supplements were created to meet the unique dietary needs of patients in hospitals and nursing homes, and they can be great for seniors who are recovering from illness or hospitalizations, need to gain weight or have difficulty chewing or swallowing. Experts at Harvard Medical School say if a medical condition interferes with your appetite, a fortified liquid supplement can help provide the nutrients you need.

But liquid meal replacements and meal supplement bars are also marketed to everyone, from busy folks on the go to grandparents who need extra energy to keep up with the grandkids.

"For individuals who can't eat enough food to get the nutrients they need, these products have been a lifesaver, literally," says Froberg. "But the biking, jogging, attractive silver-haired people we see toasting each other with liquid supplements in magazine and television advertisements are actually examples of people who need them the least."

If you're healthy, the best way to get the nutrients you need is through a balanced diet, not through expensive supplements. Whole foods provide known nutrients and benefits, and probably some benefits yet discovered. And while you might read or hear many convincing, scientific-sounding claims about nutritional supplements, not all of them, says Froberg, are based on fact.

"People think it's a new healthy way to eat, and because the supplements are promoted as providing 'essential' vitamins and minerals, they worry that they 'need' them," says Froberg. "In fact, there's nothing magical about these shakes and some of the bars are nothing more than candy in a healthy wrapper. They don't take the place of eating well, can be high in sugar and can add a lot of unneeded calories. If you're concerned that your diet is deficient in certain nutrients, don't assume that these drinks are going to fix it; check with your doctor."

As an occasional meal substitute when you don't feel like cooking or as an easy snack when traveling, a liquid nutritional supplement or bar won't hurt. But Froberg says an apple or banana, baby carrots and a container of yogurt are just as portable, lower in fat and provide important fiber missing in most meal-replacement shakes or bars.

"Turns out Grandma was right," says Froberg. "If you want to keep up your energy, eat real food. To stay healthy, eat your fruits and vegetables."

Korky Vann writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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