Nutritional and dietary supplements used to make you think of just vitamins and minerals. But nowadays, there are a lot of big businesses selling supplements with amino acids, antioxidants, hormones, herbs, vitamins, minerals, and 1000s of other supposed health foods.
Some of these supplements can be added to seniors’ diets in some cases to prevent various health problems and can be beneficial because seniors are especially susceptible to dietary deficiencies because their bodies aren’t as efficient at absorbing nutrients. However, seniors should be careful about what dietary supplements they're taking and avoid those that are ineffective or have harmful side effects.
Who should take supplements?
In most cases, supplements shouldn’t be a substitute for a proper diet made up of nutrient-dense whole foods. However, there are certain key nutrients that can be difficult for seniors to get enough of exclusively through diet. These nutrients include:
- Calcium. Calcium works with vitamin D to keep bones strong at all ages. Bone loss can lead to fractures in both older women and men. Calcium is found in milk and milk products (fat-free or low-fat is best), canned fish with soft bones, dark-green leafy vegetables like kale, and foods with calcium added, like breakfast cereals.
- Vitamin D. Most people’s bodies make enough vitamin D if they are in the sun for 15 to 30 minutes at least twice a week. But, if you are older, you may not be able to get enough vitamin D that way. Try adding vitamin D-fortified milk and milk products, vitamin D-fortified cereals, and fatty fish to your diet, and/or use a vitamin D supplement.
- Vitamin B6. This vitamin is needed to form red blood cells. It is found in potatoes, bananas, chicken breasts, and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 helps keep your red blood cells and nerves healthy. While older adults need just as much vitamin B12 as other adults, some have trouble absorbing the vitamin naturally found in food. If you have this problem, your doctor may recommend that you eat foods like fortified cereals that have this vitamin added, or use a B12 supplement.
Sometimes taking a supplement can be as simple as adding a multivitamin to your daily routine, but in other cases, you may need supplements for individual nutrients. For example, some doctors will recommend that anemic patients take iron supplements.
So should you or your elderly loved ones be taking supplements? The answer is different for every senior, and you should consult with a doctor or dietitian before starting a supplement regimen. What you want to avoid is falling for the oftentimes outrageous claims made by certain supplement companies in their advertising. Simply put, a trusted healthcare professional should sell seniors on a supplement, not a commercial!
Are supplements safe?
Unless recommended by your doctor, supplements should not exceed 100% of your daily recommended allowance (RDA) for the specific vitamin or mineral. Large doses of vitamins and minerals can actually be harmful, or in the case of nutrients like vitamin C your body can’t absorb excess amounts so there’s really no point in taking it in large amounts. When it comes to supplements, once you pass a certain threshold more isn’t better.
Another consideration regarding safety is that the FDA doesn’t regulate most dietary supplements. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has to check all prescription drugs to ensure their safety, but they don’t have the same oversight on supplements. While the FDA can order a supplement to be removed from the shelves if it’s deemed unsafe, someone has to report the problem first.
What about herbal supplements?
While using herbs and spices in cooking can be very beneficial for seniors’ health, herbal supplements should be looked at through a cautionary lense. For one, some herbal supplements can cause side effects like nausea, fainting, heart attack, stroke, or headaches. And if seniors are taking a variety of medications, some herbal supplements can interfere with their physiological function in the body.
As with anything supplement-related, you should educate yourself by talking to your doctor before buying and taking any herbal supplements.
Some things to remember about supplements
- Talk to the doctor or a registered dietitian first. Just a supplement worked for a friend, doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for you or your loved one’s needs.
- Avoid buying combinations supplements with unnecessary added vitamins and minerals.
- Do research online about the supplement in question. But ask yourself, could the writer or group profit from the sale of a particular supplement?
- Buy supplements from companies/brands that you and healthcare professionals know are trustworthy.
- Remember that many of the claims made about supplements are not based on enough scientific proof. If you have questions about a supplement, contact the firm or a doctor and ask if it has information on the safety and/or effectiveness of the ingredients in its product.