Harvard Women's Health Watch

Ask the doctor: Which supplements do I need?

Q. There seems to be agreement that supplements are worthless in supporting good health. I've been taking a multivitamin for older women for many years. I also take a calcium supplement since I am lactose intolerant. Should I discontinue the multivitamin, the calcium, or both?

A. You are definitely right about the recent consensus that most supplements, and certainly multivitamins, provide very little, if any, benefit to our health. So yes, stop taking the multivitamin. A far more important strategy to maintain good health is eating a diet containing lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, unsaturated fats, and small amounts of protein. Our bodies were designed to absorb nutrients from food, and that continues to be the best way to get them in our systems.

However, calcium and vitamin D are very important for good health, and most women do not get enough of either in their diets. Women over age 65 need about 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium and about 800 IU of vitamin D daily to help maintain normal bone density. If your diet doesn't supply this much calcium, you should take a supplement to reach that daily amount. Sunlight and our skin provide us with all our vitamin D when we are younger. As we age, our skin becomes much less efficient in converting sunlight into vitamin D, and we need to take it as a supplement or in our food to get all we need.

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