In our recent article, 5 Myths About Nutritional Supplements, we shot down the myth that you need to be taking multiple single-nutrient supplements every day. But we also pointed out that, depending on your overall health and diet, there are some possible exceptions.
The experts we consulted identified five nutrients that many of us may not be getting in sufficient amounts through our meals alone. All are crucial to our health. Some can be obtained through supplements. Others we can get through our diet, although we may need to make adjustments.
Recommended Daily Value: 1,000 mg for men over 50; 1,200 mg for women over 50 and everyone over 70. (As you get older, you need more because your ability to absorb the nutrient from food gradually declines.)
Why you need it: Your body needs calcium to maintain bone mass, and it helps your muscles expand and contract. Calcium also helps regulate the pH level of your blood, aids in the production of many hormones and enzymes, and contributes to healthy blood pressure.
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How to get it: Three daily servings of dairy (such as milk, yogurt, cheese), plus one serving of another calcium-rich food, like fortified cereal, sardines, salmon, fortified orange juice or a soy beverage. Dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a professor at Boston University and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says most of us should be able to get our daily needs through our food: One cup of nonfat milk, sipped with a meal, provides almost 900 mg, for example. Add a two-ounce serving of cheese and you’ve met the RDV. Another option: a calcium supplement. It's best to get your calcium throughout the day, though, so even if you take it as a supplement, divide it into two doses a day, with meals.
2. Vitamin D
Recommended Daily Value: 600 IU (international units) for adults up to age 70; 800 IU for adults over 71.
Why you need it: The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. It also helps to transport messages between the brain and the rest of the body — with vitamin D receptors in just about every cell in the body, taking in optimal amounts helps maintain the body's communication system. But your skin, liver and kidney’s ability to produce vitamin D declines with age, and low levels of the nutrient affect our hunger signals, mood, immune system and more.
How to get it: The best way to generate vitamin D is through exposure to the sun, which aids production of the nutrient in your body. But UV rays are strong enough to boost vitamin D production only between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. — prime working hours for many adults. What’s more, the sun needs to hit more than your hands and face, and even when we're not covered up, most of us wear sunscreen, which is the right choice — it just means we need to get our vitamin D in other ways. Most milk today is fortified with D (about 400 IU per quart), as are many brands of orange juice, yogurt and cereal (amounts vary). Vitamin D is also found in fatty fish, but you’d need to incorporate it into two meals in order to hit the daily goal. With relatively limited natural sources, then, many of us rely on vitamin D supplements. Nutrition and health experts have been debating the proper daily dose, based on emerging studies that show a possible link between the nutrient and benefits such as a stronger immune system, reduced inflammation and fracture prevention. Some now recommend a daily 1,000 IU dose; others resist raising their recommendation because of a small but measurable risk of developing kidney stones.
Recommended Daily Value: 420 mg for men over 30; 320 mg for women over 30.
Why you need it: The mineral is necessary for a healthy immune system, to maintain bone and muscle mass and nerve function, to regulate your heart rate and more. Yet three out of four adults over the age of 50 don’t get enough, says dietitian Elizabeth Somer, author of Eat Your Way to Sexy (Harlequin, 2011).
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How to get it: Magnesium is abundant in wheat germ, whole grains, nuts and leafy greens. Women would need to eat two cups of cooked spinach or four ounces of almonds or cashews to reach that target. If that's more than you're willing to consume, Somer recommends getting the mineral from a multivitamin (check for magnesium on the label) or a calcium supplement that is two parts calcium, one part magnesium.
4. Vitamin B12
Recommended Daily Value: 2.4 micrograms (mcg).
Why you need it: Vitamin B12 helps produce DNA and protects our nerve and blood cells. But as we age, our stomachs secrete less of the hydrochloric acid that’s necessary to absorb B12 from our food, Salge Blake says. We can absorb the B12 that comes from supplements and fortified foods, though.
How to get it: B12 is found naturally in animal foods, especially beef liver and clams, and in some fortified foods. We can also get it from a multivitamin that contains about 100 percent of the RDV of B12.
5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids (fish oil)
Recommended Daily Value: 220 mg DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
Why you need it: The omega-3 fatty acid DHA is essential for brain function and also plays a key role in reducing your risk of heart disease. One recent large-scale study, known as the MIDAS study, found that older people who got 900 mg of DHA daily showed improved memory function after six months, compared with those who took a placebo.
How to get it: Eating two eight-ounce portions a week of fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines) is the best way to meet your needs, Salge Blake says. One whole serving of cooked salmon, for example, provides 1.2 grams of DHA. If you're not a regular fish eater and you're considering an omega-3 supplement, Salge Blake advises that you consult your doctor or a registered dietitian for guidance on the proper dose (or, for that matter, about starting to take any dietary supplement). Your doctor may recommend you take a supplement just a couple of times a week, as it’s easy to consume too much DHA and high doses can cause gastric distress, or interfere with medications. For example, DHA may interfere with blood clotting in people who take a daily aspirin or blood thinner.
Get Advice From the Right Sources
There seem to be news reports every day about new dietary discoveries and breathless recommendations. Some should lead to changes in your diet; the benefits of others may still be unproven. To find out what you actually need to do, consult your doctor, or a registered dietitian. Many health insurance plans cover dietitian visits. Depending on your plan, simply being over 50 may qualify you for one or more covered sessions. If you’re being treated for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or other chronic conditions, the likelihood that your insurance will cover a consultation is even higher. To find a dietitian near you, go to eatright.org and click "Find a Registered Dietitian."