Impact Of Diet And Supplements On Health

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Complementary and alternative medicine is a diverse group of health care practices not presently considered to be a part of traditional medicine. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of Americans use complementary and alternative medicine, which includes dietary supplements.

"The use of dietary supplements has grown considerably in the past two decades," said Peggy Fleming, Olympic figure skating champion and HealthSaver spokesperson.

While supplements can help you ingest the vitamins and minerals your body requires, they should not be used as a substitute for the nutrients and benefits a balanced diet provides. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that supplements should also not be used in place of prescription medicine.

"Dietary supplements can, however, help sustain proper body function when your body does not otherwise receive the nutrients it requires," said Brad Eggleston, vice president of HealthSaver.

Educate Yourself

-- Dietary supplements do not have the same testing and labeling process as prescription and over-the-counter medications, so it is up to you, the consumer, to evaluate a supplement for safety and effectiveness.

-- First, find out what risks the supplement carries. Internet research should only include credible resources, such as government agencies and major medical centers. Clinical studies, which involve testing with human beings, will best reflect how you may react to the supplement. In order to ensure recent findings, articles should be up to date.

-- Read the label. Do the supplement's active ingredients target your health needs? The Mayo Clinic recommends looking for "USP" on the label to ensure the supplement meets standards established by the U.S. Pharmacopeia. The label should also include an expiration date.

-- More than 75 percent of Americans 50 years and older do not discuss complementary and alternative medicine with their physicians, according to a National Institutes of Health survey. Yet it is important to consult your physician before taking dietary supplements because, much like prescription medicines, supplements can cause adverse effects, including interactions with other medicines. For example, people taking high blood pressure medication may lower their blood pressure too much if also taking fish oil supplements.

Vitamins

-- Vitamins convert food into energy and maintain proper digestion and nerve function.

-- Many biological processes require vitamins, though opinions on the health benefits of multivitamin supplements remain divided. One essential nutrient with few side effects is Vitamin C, an antioxidant which helps your body absorb iron.

-- Scientific studies show that Vitamin C only helps prevent colds for people living in extreme conditions. Overall, eating whole foods that contain Vitamin C, such as oranges, is a wiser choice than a Vitamin C supplement because dietary sources provide a variety of nutrients. The U.S. Food and Nutrition Board recommends 90 mg of Vitamin C per day for men and 75 mg per day for women. One cup of strawberries provides a full daily Vitamin C intake.

Minerals

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-- Minerals help regulate the balance of fluids in your body and are essential to your health. Studies show that many Americans consume less than half of the recommended amount of calcium, a mineral important to bone health and the prevention of osteoporosis.

-- Women should take special care to meet calcium needs because, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, women are four times more likely than men to develop the disease. If your diet does not provide enough calcium, a dietary supplement can help you get back on track.

-- Food sources of calcium include milk, cheese and yogurt. Aim for food that includes at least a 10 percent daily value (DV) of calcium. This information can be found on the food label.

-- If your diet contains too many low-nutrient foods, such as sugar- sweetened sodas and potato chips, consider taking an iron supplement. People prone to iron deficiency include pregnant women and teenage girls.

-- Low iron intake can limit oxygen delivery to cells, resulting in fatigue and decreased immune function. A balanced diet that includes foods such as meats, poultry, fish and beans, should provide enoughiron. If iron levels are not otherwise met, an iron supplement may help restore your health.

Popular Dietary Supplements

-- Among the most popular natural products in complementary and alternative medicine is echinacea, an herbal supplement used to boost the immune system. Studies indicate, however, that echinacea does not help prevent or treat colds and the flu, as is commonly believed.

-- St. John's wort is also one of the most commonly used herbal supplements. According to a study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, this plant extract has minimal health benefits in treating major depression. St. John's wort may, however, help treat milder forms of depression.

-- Omega-3 supplements can help promote overall health. Evidence most strongly supports fish-oil supplements as a treatment for improvements in the effects of cardiovascular disease.

Functional Foods

-- Fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help delay age-related diseases. Because your body's defense against oxidative stress can be weakened with age, it is important to consume plenty of antioxidants.

-- Common functional foods include tomatoes for prostate health, apples to neutralize cell-damaging free radicals and whole-grain cereals to reduce the risk of diabetes.

-- Evidence suggests that the antioxidants in blueberries and grapes may reduce the risk of cancer and help manage cardiovascular health. The distinct colors of such fruits can help you identify foods that contain antioxidants.

-- Approximately 90 percent of tea consumed in the United States is black tea, which, with the proper diet, can help reduce cholesterol levels and the risk of coronary heart disease. Drinking plenty of green tea may also help prevent and treat inflammation-related diseases.

The best formula for optimum health is to maintain a balanced diet and a regular exercise routine. While conventional medicine is still best to diagnose and treat diseases, dietary supplements may help restore your health when you cannot receive adequate nutrition or your body requires more nutrients than usual. Before taking dietary supplements, be sure to talk to your physician and educate yourself on the pros and cons of the supplement. If the supplement is safe for you to use, it just may be the answer you're looking for in restoring your health.

HealthSaver, an emerging health care discount program, offers savings on prescriptions, vision care, complementary and alternative health care treatments, vitamins and supplements by mail and more than 1,500 fitness clubs nationwide, including select Bally Total Fitness, World Gym and Ladies Workout Express locations.

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