Wouldn’t we all love to find a nutrient, herb or other substance that will prevent or cure just about anything that ails us? Certainly, we hear about plenty of products these days that supposedly offer such miracle benefits. Have you heard any of these?
“This new fiber binds the fat you eat and causes you to lose weight.”
“Serotonin will stop you from overeating.”
“Energize your days with this amazing herb”
“Eat plenty of soy. It’s a cure-all for hot flashes.”
“Antioxidant supplements reduce risk of heart disease and cancer”
Do these products truly offer hope, or are they just more of the same when it comes to nutrition nonsense? Let’s explore the facts behind these and similar claims.
Ah, if there were only such a thing as a magic weight loss pill or product. Imagine the improved health and happiness many people would enjoy. Unfortunately there’s no such thing. What’s more, there may be danger in them there hills. Some products sold over the counter, such as herbal preparations that contain the herb ephedra, have been linked to real health problems. Other products, such as those that are supposed to increase serotonin (a neurochemical involved in appetite regulation), just have not been proven. The danger there may lie in wasted efforts (to say nothing of wasted money), pinning your hopes on an approach that takes you nowhere.
Bottom Line: When it comes to healthy weights, there’s no substitute for healthy living. It’s a pleasant, safe way to be the best you can be.
Ask women why they take herbal supplements such as ginseng, echinacea, gingko and St. John’s wort, and some of the most common responses are to:
- Improve energy
- Promote weight loss
- Relieve stress
- Improve memory
- Improve mental performance
Do these herbs really have such wonderful effects? Well…maybe. But it’s wise to be cautious. In most cases, there is just not enough research to hang our hats on. Even if there were, product consistency is sorely lacking. That is, there’s no guarantee about the amount of an active ingredient you get in various supplements – you could get too little in some and too much in others. Finally, you also need to know about the effect herbal preparations can have when used in combination with other medications you may be taking.
Bottom Line: Make sure your health care provider knows about herbs you take. She or he can give you guidance based on your individual situation.
One of the first foods that comes to mind here is soy. Is it the answer to the challenges women face as they get older, such as menopausal symptoms, osteoporosis, cancer and heart disease? There’s no question it’s a great food – in particular, soy provides protein for vegetarians and anyone else who wants to reduce the amount of animal food they eat. What’s more, research does show that eating a diet rich in soy can help cut risk of heart disease. Whether it cuts cancer risk or prevents hot flashes – that’s not so clear. Then there’s the challenge – do you like the stuff?
Bottom Line: The best advice remains the same: Eat a variety of foods that include grains/starchy vegetables, protein foods, vegetables and fruits. That way, if you don’t like one particular food, you will likely be able to get similar benefits from others foods you enjoy.
But give soy (a protein food) a try. There are plenty of choices – you may enjoy some. Try tofu instead of chicken in stir fries; sample soymilk if you can’t drink regular milk (get the calcium-fortified kind); enjoy a veggie burger made with soy instead of a hamburger occasionally. The jury’s still out in soy powders – whether they really provide the benefits you want from soy. Best to stick with the real stuff.
Antioxidants & Other Vitamin/Mineral Supplements
Such a debate we’ve seen about antioxidant supplements! After several years of recommendations from very credible sources to take antioxidants daily, recent studies indicate supplements of vitamins C, E and beta-carotene offer no increased protection against heart disease. Once again, it seems that the higher levels of antioxidants from the foods we eat, e.g. fruits and vegetables, rather than single nutrients are the best way to go. That may be due to the fact that foods also contain additional components such as fiber and other nutrient and non-nutrient components that are not found in single supplements.
Quick list of phytonutrients (plant nutrients, including antioxidants) that may offer health benefits:
- Beta carotene — Enjoy apricots, mangoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, broccoli, spinach and other dark-green, leafy vegies.
- Lutein — Try kiwi, broccoli, spinach.
- Lycopene — Pink grapefruit and tomatoes are among the best sources.
- Anthocyanins — Blueberries, cherries, plums and strawberries fill the bill here.
- Phenolic compounds – Savor berries, grapes, tomatoes and apples.
In addition, there’s plenty of time-tested research that shows many women don’t get enough of several necessary nutrients, even when they eat a balanced diet. Fortified foods and vitamin and mineral supplements can provide the additional boost we need. In particular:
- Calcium intake is usually low, especially in older women.
- Extra sources of vitamin D may be important for older women who do not drink milk and who live in northern climates.
- Adequate folate is critical for women of childbearing years, to reduce risk of birth defects. It’s also important to control homocysteine levels in the blood — too much is linked to heart disease. Fortified cereals and other grain foods, leafy greens and legumes are excellent sources of folate.
- Younger women likely need supplemental iron, but it is not recommended for postmenopausal women. Fortified cereals are an easy way to add iron to the diet.
Bottom Line: At this time, many researchers believe that multivitamin/mineral supplements, or individual supplements that provide no more than 100% of the daily needs for a individual nutrient, or fortified foods are preferred methods by which to supplement the diet.
The Bottom, Bottom Line
It comes down to this. While there may some truth to many of the nutrition or health claims we hear, in most cases it is too soon – sometimes too dangerous – to act until we know more. Even though scientific research is a very slow, methodical process involving repeated studies and can take years to sort out the facts, experience shows it’s usually better to be safe than sorry. Think carefully before you make any changes in your diet or health routine, particularly if the change is based on the findings of a single study.