What Vitamins Should I Take? Secrets Doctors Tell Their Friends

When physicians have heart-to-heart chats with their pals, their advice often differs from the medical standard.

Also in Reader's Digest Magazine August 2013

By Richard Laliberte from Reader's Digest Magazine | August 2013

“Unless you have osteoporosis, skip calcium pills.”

Women have been told for years to take calcium preventively for strong bones, so Dr. Rosen isn’t surprised when people cop to popping calcium pills three or four times a day. But many are shocked by the advice he shares now: “If your bones are healthy, I don’t think there’s any need for supplements, because they might not help and may be harmful.”

Calcium keeps bones strong and helps muscles, nerves, blood, and hormones do their jobs. You especially need it when you’re young and building bone or when you’re older (over 50 for women and over 70 for men) and your body absorbs less of the mineral. But it’s easy to get enough from foods such as milk, yogurt, broccoli, and fortified orange juice and cereal. “You need only about 1,000 mg of calcium a day, and the typical dietary intake is about 850 mg, so most people already consume a relatively decent amount,” Dr. Rosen says.

He’d rather see friends make up this small deficit by switching out junky processed foods for healthier, calcium-rich ones than take supplements, which can quickly push people dangerously close to the upper limit of 2,000 to 2,500 mg—beyond which calcium may start to harm health. Too much calcium can cause constipation and increase the risk of kidney stones.

Newer research, though still controversial, shows that people who take calcium supplements suffer heart attacks at a greater frequency than those who don’t.

There’s more: Dr. Rosen says that many people assume that calcium supplements prevent osteoporosis, but the latest independent review of research found there’s not enough proof to show that pills help people who do not have the bone-weakening condition. It’s a bit of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation: For postmenopausal women, doses below 1,000 mg don’t help, but doses above that amount may increase risks.

So should you take a supplement?

“There’s no reason to take one unless you have osteoporosis—and even then, take only one 500-mg pill a day,” Dr. Rosen says.

Next: Is glucosamine/chondroitin helpful for achy, arthritic knees?

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