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Supplements are not food: Four tips to help you stay healthy

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- We all want to make sure that we are getting the most out of our food. From the time we are taught about basic human biology in middle and high school to adulthood, we are told to “eat your fruits and veggies if you want to become big and strong.” But we live in an age where “fast is better,” and eating fruits and vegetables is “for them health nuts.” More and more adults, and even children, get their vitamins and nutrients not from food, but from supplements.

Since the early 1940s, Americans have been taking multivitamin/mineral supplements. MVMs account for almost one-sixth of all purchases of dietary supplements and 40 percent of all sales of vitamin and mineral supplements. According to the National Institute of Health, 2014 saw sales of all dietary supplements in the United States totaling an estimated $36.7 billion.

To complicate further this product category, many dietary supplements are not labeled as MVMs even though they contain similar types and amounts of vitamins and minerals as those products labeled as MVMs. For example, a manufacturer might label a product containing vitamins C and E, selenium, and beta-carotene as an antioxidant formula rather than an MVM even though it contains several vitamins and a mineral.

Who uses multivitamins and supplements

People use supplements for various reasons. A study done by the NIH showed that there were two primary influencers of MVM use: to increase nutrient intakes and to improve health and/or prevent chronic diseases.

Although supplements and the use of supplements are heavily marketed for fitness, the study pointed to the most frequent consumers to be women, children, the elderly, those with more education, higher incomes, healthier lifestyles and diets, and lower body-mass indexes.
Because supplements are not regulated, their Daily Values and the Recommended Dietary Allowances may not be as stated by the manufacturer and may be less or even more than what is on the nutrition label.

No U.S. government health agency, to include the Department of Defense Military Health Services, promotes regular use of supplements and multivitamins or individual nutrients without considering first the quality of a person’s diet.

Know the risks

Some dietary supplements are dangerous and could have long lasting harmful effects. Like drugs, supplements can have side effects if not taken properly or abused. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry, MVM and supplement manufacturers are not required to do research and studies on people using their products to determine safe levels of use.
There are to date around twenty five dietary supplement ingredients now banned by the Department of Defense and the list keeps growing. These banned and prohibited supplements contain pharmaceutical grade ingredients that have resulted in harmful affects, some even fatal. If you are not sure if the supplement you are taking contains any of these or other dangerous ingredients, go to OPSS.org or NSF International and see if your supplement is safe.

Making the right choice

Supplements and MVMs are not a substitute for whole foods. Unless you have a medical condition that requires it, food should always be your first choice. Not to mention the hit it can do to your wallet when the same amount of money could be spent instead on purchasing whole foods that are much healthier for you and easier on the bank.
People who are generally healthy and active do not need to take supplements or MVMs if incorporating a mix of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy, protein and lean meats and fish into their daily diet.

If you are still not sure on what to do, the USDA MyPlate is a great resource and tool and serves as a reminder to find your healthy eating style and build it throughout your lifetime. Everything you eat and drink matters. The right mix can help you be healthier now and in the future.

This means:
1. Focus on variety, amount and nutrition.
2. Choose foods and beverages with less saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.
3. Start with small changes to build healthier eating styles.
4. Support healthy eating for everyone.
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