Vitamins & Supplements: What do Women Need?
By Michael Lasalandra
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Correspondent
Women are being bombarded these days with ads urging them to take a variety of vitamins, minerals and other supplements, saying their status as females requires them to get extra help in order to lead long, healthy lives. But experts in nutrition say most women don't need much more than a little extra calcium and vitamin D in addition to a healthy diet.
"There's no replacement for a healthy diet," says Dr. George Blackburn, chief of the Nutritional/Metabolism Laboratory and director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "If you are not getting your dark, leafy vegetables, fiber and low-fat dairy in your diet, no amount of supplements is going to replace all the vital nutrients found in those healthy foods."
It is true that women have some nutritional needs that are different from those of men, but most can easily be met by eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats, fish and fowl, he says.
Blackburn recommends most people, men and women, take a multi-vitamin each day "as insurance." But he says there is no scientific proof that doing so is helpful in any way. For that reason, he recommends taking an inexpensive generic multi-vitamin and says there is no reason to buy one that is labeled as being formulated for women.
"The money you save could go into buying more plant-based foods," he says. "They would give you ten times the nutritional value of some fancy label multi-vitamin."
In addition to a multi-vitamin, Blackburn says women may need some fortification in calcium and Vitamin D, particularly as they age, to help protect their bones.
"If you stick to a healthy diet, you are most of the way there," he says.
Women need 1,000 mg of calcium and 1,000 IU of Vitamin D daily for bone health, he notes. That can be obtained by consuming three servings of dairy per day such as milk or 2 servings of low-fat yogurt or cheese. If for allergy or intolerance reasons you avoid dairy foods, you can get your calcium and vitamin D through food sources such as calcium fortified orange juice or soy milk plus a supplement containing 400 mg of calcium and one containing 400 IU of Vitamin D. The calcium and Vitamin D work in tandem to protect bones and often are sold combined in one pill. Women over 50 years of age need 1,200 mg of calcium and 1,200 IU of Vitamin D daily.
While it is menopausal and post-menopausal women who are vulnerable to brittle bones, because of a lack of estrogen, Blackburn says women should begin the supplementation prior to hitting menopause. Teenage girls should also make sure they get plenty of calcium and Vitamin D in their diets as both are vital to bones that are still growing, he notes.
Fiber supplements and products containing extra fiber are also being marketed heavily lately, but Blackburn says to stay away from them for the most part. "We would rather see you get your fiber from foods high in fiber such as beans, vegetables such as broccoli or spinach and whole grains," he says.
People need 25 grams of fiber per day, but women must pay more attention to it than men because they need fewer calories each day. Fiber not only helps with digestion and bowel movements, but it also helps control blood sugar metabolism, cholesterol metabolism, is good for the heart and works to prevent diabetes and control weight, he says.
If taking fiber supplements or powders, one should make sure to drink plenty of water at the same time so the fibrous material doesn't get stuck in the esophagus, he warns. It is also important to remember to incorporate fiber gradually into the diet to prevent constipation, he adds.
Iron and folic acid supplementation has also been associated with women's health, but Blackburn says neither should be taken unless tests show a deficiency and the supplements are advised by a doctor.
Many products in the United States, from breads to cereals, are already fortified with both iron and folic acid, so most women are getting plenty, he says. Folic acid is particularly important for pregnant women, to prevent certain birth defects. Too much iron can be dangerous as it can cause iron overload or hemochromatosis. Lean meat three times a week is a good source of iron, he says. For non-meat eaters it is important to include foods such as beans, dark leafy greens and fortified grains to meet their iron recommendations. Combining these foods with foods high in vitamin C, like oranges for example, helps increase iron absorption.
A fairly new line of products is aimed at menopausal women and promise to alleviate symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. These are supplements made from soy and other plant estrogens.
"Most of them have not been found to be beneficial," Blackburn says. However, one study, done at BIDMC, did show a soy product, daidzein isoflavones, did reduce the severity and frequency of hot severe hot flashes, he notes. Such products should be used only for about five years in the early part of menopause, he says.
"But women should be guided by their ob-gyn on this," he adds.
Female athletes have no special nutritional needs aside from a balanced, healthy diet except for the need to drink plenty of water, about eight glasses a day, to keep from becoming dehydrated, he says.
"They may need extra calories to support their training, but they don't need extra protein to build lean muscles, he adds. Overall, women's nutritional needs can be met by eating a healthy, colorful diet and not being sedentary, according to Blackburn.
"Women need to get their engines running by eat a healthy diet," he says. "There is no way around it."
Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
Posted June 2009