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Good Health in a Capsule?

We're popping more vitamin and mineral supplements than ever in our no-fuss effort to try to prevent disease. But some people may be causing themselves other ills.

November 06, 1996|CAROLE SUGARMAN | THE WASHINGTON POST

The last time I visited my parents, I realized that my mom had turned into a bit of a pill popper--the breakfast table was laden with bottles of vitamins and minerals, like a supplement smorgasbord. Calcium, vitamin C, vitamin E, a combined antioxidant, a multivitamin, an herbal concoction.

"When you're young, you never think you're going to be old," she explained. "I never, never thought I'd be my mother's age. But it happens. And when it does, you really start thinking of your health much more, simply because you're concerned about your mortality." And by taking all these vitamins and minerals, my 68-year-old mom says, she hopes to stay healthy, prevent disease and prolong her life.

She's not alone. Five years ago, supplement users were most interested in meeting recommended daily allowances. The No. 1 reason people take supplements today, according to a 1995 survey conducted by Applied Biometrics, an independent food, supplement and pharmaceutical consulting firm, is because they think taking them will help prevent disease.

And those ranks will grow substantially. Market researchers predict that aging baby boomers will increasingly turn to supplements and fortified foods to maintain their health.

It's all part of a shift in thinking: Americans are focusing less on avoidance and more on what A. Elizabeth Sloan, president of Applied Biometrics, calls proactive nutrition. People are "seeking health-promoting ingredients," she said.

In fact, for the last six years, there's been a decline in Americans' concerns about avoiding fat, cholesterol and sodium, said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a research firm that surveys eating habits. Combine that with already growing sales of supplements, he said, and "my prediction is that the new health trend for baby boomers will not be avoidance but enhancement with vitamins and minerals."

Supplementation is "easy health," Balzer said. "It fits in just with the way Americans behave. You don't have to change your diet." The same goes for people older than 65. "They're looking for easier ways of handling their lives," he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that more than half of Americans take supplements--a 10% growth since 1990. It's a $4.3-billion market, and as Mary Burnette, spokeswoman for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, put it, "supplements are no longer a fringe thing that people are buying just in health food stores. You're seeing herbs and amino acids being sold at Kmart."

Currently, 28% of Americans from 45 to 64 take supplements, according to the Applied Biometrics survey. And 18% of seniors take them, the firm reports.

Supplement users of all ages cite disease prevention as the first reason for taking the pills, and a desire to "increase energy" as the second. The No. 3 reason differs markedly by age group; those older than 64 say they use them to "treat medical problems" while the rest of the population cites "improving fitness," Sloan said.

Not surprisingly, dietitians aren't thrilled about the pill proliferation.

Sheah Rarback, a nutritionist and assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, says many of the original studies on the benefits of vitamins and minerals such as antioxidants were based on those nutrients in food, not supplements.

Rarback and others are also concerned that people may be taking single vitamins or minerals indiscriminately to the point where they may interfere with the absorption of other nutrients, or worse, cause toxicity. And in many cases, there may not be a consensus that a vitamin or mineral is helpful.

"Obviously, not everyone eats perfectly every day," says Neva Cochran, a nutrition consultant in Dallas. "If it makes you feel more comfortable, a multivitamin is certainly fine."

As for my mom, she eats well--lots of fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish. She walks regularly, and she really is healthy, so it's hard to argue.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Elemental ABCs Supplements are all the rage these days. But what separates the vitamins from the minerals?

From high school science class, you know that A, C and D are vitamins, and iron, sodium and magnesium are minerals. What you've forgotten is that:

* Vitamins are compounds that help the body use proteins, carbohydrates, fats and minerals.

* Vitamins are important for functions such as the formation of red blood cells, mental alertness and fighting infection.

* Minerals are elements that aid in a variety of body processes, including blood clotting, muscle movement and fluid balance, and in the case of bones, the mineral calcium plays an important structural role.

* Taking excessive amounts of certain vitamins and minerals may lead to severe adverse reactions and, in some cases, poisoning.

Source: "The USP Guide to Vitamins & Minerals" (Avon Books, 1996).

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