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Dietary supplements: The health benefits of pumping up your diet

November 05, 2010 12:00 AM
With the popularity of fast and inexpensive processed food, many of us struggle to get all the nutrients we need out of our diets. As a result, dietary supplements are growing in popularity and are now a multi-billion dollar industry. Still, many of us remain either confused by what to take or skeptical of what the actual benefits of these supplements might be.

“There are six essential nutrients that we need to get each day,” explains William Betz, D.O., M.B.A., FACOFP, senior associate dean for osteopathic medical education at Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine. “These are proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water.”

The best source of these nutrients is a healthy, balanced diet, comprised of fresh, whole foods and an abundance of fruits and vegetables.

However, even people who strive to eat a healthy diet can sometimes miss essential nutrients. Therefore, nutritional supplements, when taken appropriately, can be beneficial to almost anyone’s diet.

“The first supplement to consider adding to your diet is the multivitamin,” says Betz.

There are many essential vitamins and minerals found in multivitamins that can be difficult to attain solely through one’s diet. The health benefits of these nutrients are hard to ignore. Calcium makes your bones stronger. Vitamin B12 gives you more energy. Vitamin D boosts your immune system.

“Overall, the multivitamin is the single most diverse supplement you can add to your diet,” said Betz.

However, not all multivitamins are made equal. “Many multivitamins contain synthetic nutrients instead of natural ones, which are harder for the body to absorb,” explains Betz. He recommends taking an all-natural multivitamin derived from actual food sources so the body can absorb a much larger percentage of its nutrients.

Another important nutrient we should be supplementing our diets with is fat. According to Betz, it is a common misconception that fat is bad for us when, actually, quite the opposite is true. The body uses fat to do everything from building cell membranes to performing key functions in the brain, eyes, and lungs. Fats also play a vital role in our cardiovascular health as well as in the maintenance of our skin and hair.

“The problem with fat is that people eat too many trans fats, often found in processed food, that not only raise cholesterol, but also increase the risk of heart disease,” says Betz.

Healthy fats, such as monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and the super-healthy fats omega 3 fatty acids, can actually improve the overall health of the heart.

“When combined with exercise, taking an omega 3 supplement can also combat the problem of high triglycerides and low, good (HDL) cholesterol - another common medical problem caused by diets high in trans fat,” says Betz. Therefore, it is important to make sure our diets include a good amount of these healthy fats.

“Fish oil, which contains concentrated omega 3 fatty acids, is perhaps the best nutritional supplement for healthy fats,” adds Betz.

Another good dietary supplement to consider is protein. “Protein is one of the body's main building blocks for muscle, bone, skin, and other tissues,” says Betz. Often found in the form of powders or shakes, protein supplements repair muscles and help the body recover from exercise. If your diet is low in protein-rich foods, such as fish, poultry, beans, nuts and whole grains, then you may want to consider adding a protein supplement.

However, that protein supplementation can be harmful to certain populations, especially those with diminished kidney function.

“Before adding protein, or any other nutritional supplement to your diet, you should check with your doctor to make sure it is safe for you.”

Preventive medicine is just one aspect of care osteopathic physicians (D.O.s) provide. D.O.s are fully-licensed to prescribe medicine and practice in all specialty areas including surgery. D.O.s are trained to consider the health of the whole person and use their hands to help diagnose and treat their patients.

William Betz D.O., M.B.A., FACOFP, is the senior associate dean for osteopathic medical education at the Pikeville College School of Osteopathic Medicine.
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