There was a time—and it wasn’t that long ago—when doctors were quick to recommend one or several vitamin supplements to ensure your aging body was getting all the good stuff it needed. But that ready dependence on vitamin and mineral supplements has begun to fall out of fashion.
For one thing, the belief that popping a pill will always—or even often—provide a measurable benefit has become “very controversial,” says Zhaoping Li, MD, director of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition.
The ways your body breaks down and absorbs nutrients is complex. And even if your blood tests show you’re low in a specific vitamin or nutrient, taking a pill won’t necessarily solve your problem, Li says. “A balanced diet is a far better strategy to prevent nutritional shortages,” she argues. (Looking to take back control of your health? Prevention has smart answers—get a FREE book when you subscribe now.)
Plus, she explains, there are very real risks associated with over-supplementing. (More on those in a minute.)
“The truth is that if you’re healthy and you eat a good diet, you probably don’t need to be taking anything,” adds Kerry Hildreth, MD, an assistant professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Colorado.
You may need these two vitamins—plus exercise.
Because of the ways your hormones shift during and after menopause, women are at greater risk for osteoporosis as they age, Hildreth says. “Taking calcium to prevent bone loss and osteoporosis is a regular suggestion for elderly women,” she explains. Specifically, 1,000 to 1,500 mg daily.
But taking a little extra calcium alone won’t safeguard your bones. “Adequate vitamin D is important for calcium absorption,” Hildreth explains. So for persons at risk for age-related bone loss, combining those two together is a good idea.
That said, taking calcium and D isn’t enough, Li adds. “Bone density is determined by muscle strength, so if your muscles are weak, more calcium won’t help,” she says. “You need to be active and exercise your muscles in order to maintain your bones strong.”
It’s all about protein, protein, protein.
The older you get, the less you tend to eat and the more muscles waste (this process is called sarcopenia), Hildreth says. While most younger adults don’t have to worry much about protein shortages—the average American eats boatloads of protein—a lot of adults over 50 could use extra protein in their meals to support strength and muscle maintenances. (Here’s what the perfect day of eating enough protein looks like.)
That doesn’t mean you need to eat a T-bone topped with eggs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But if you think you’re eating less than you used to—whether because you’re on a diet or you’re just not as hungry these days—ensuring your diet is packed with protein may help prevent muscle loss and other low-protein symptoms like fatigue.
Supplements come with hazards.
Many people assume vitamin or nutrient supplements are safe because they don’t require a prescription. Wrong, Hildreth says. “Supplements can interact with one another and with your prescriptions drugs in harmful ways,” she says. We’re talking significant liver or kidney damage, heart issues, and hair loss. Even certain supplement substances with outstanding reputations—stuff like green tea extract—can inflict considerable damage.
“The supplement industry has become huge, and we caution all our patients not to take things without running them by their doctor first,” she adds. Always bear in mind: When it comes to vitamins, little is more.
Multivitamins might be a waste of money.
For people who eat a very poor diet, a multivitamin may help fill some nutritional gaps, Zhaoping says. But if you eat well—and especially if your diet contains a lot of nutrient-rich vegetables—you probably aren’t gaining much by popping a multivitamin every day, she says. “I consider multivitamins very safe, but often a waste of money,” she says. (Consider replacing your multivitamin with these 5 items.)
Hildreth agrees, and adds that you need to watch out for multis if you’re taking other supplements—like calcium. “Iron can interfere with calcium absorption, and a lot of multivitamins contain iron,” she says.
It’s best to talk to your doc.
Both Hildreth and Li stress that vitamin needs vary from individual to individual. What you may need to take will depend on your diet, your family history, your personal habits, the other drugs you’re swallowing, and a dozen other factors. “It’s best to speak with your doctor and only take what he or she advises,” Zhaoping says.
Also, once your doc tells you what to take, watch out for supplements that include a bunch of other ingredients. Supplement manufacturers will often pack their products with additonal vitamins or herbs (or these unwelcomed ingredients) in order to make them seem somehow superior to all the competing products. But you don’t want that extra stuff, which may come with risks, Zhaoping says.