To Your Health

I consider myself quite healthy at age 42. I have been a strict vegetarian (vegan) for more than 10 years, I exercise and meditate regularly, and have never smoked tobacco. I have two healthy children and I am still having regular, uncomplicated menstrual periods. Is there any reason for me to consider taking food supplements?

Q. I consider myself quite healthy at age 42. I have been a strict vegetarian (vegan) for more than 10 years, I exercise and meditate regularly, and have never smoked tobacco. I have two healthy children and I am still having regular, uncomplicated menstrual periods. Is there any reason for me to consider taking food supplements?

A. Congratulations on your dedication to a healthy lifestyle! You should expect rewards for your efforts for decades to come. However, life on Earth can always be improved, and there are lessons to be learned from animal research on this matter.

About 20 years ago Dr. Donald R. Davis at the University of Texas at Austin was doing research on the quality of the American diet. He compared the growth rate in young, healthy rats eating the standard laboratory rat diet to the growth rate of those eating a diet that compared as closely as feasible to the typical American diet. Not unexpectedly, he found the laboratory rat diet much better. In fact, he found that, in order to match the American diet, he had to make the laboratory diet poorer and poorer until it was only 30% of its original quality with respect to vitamins and minerals. This can be interpreted to mean that we Americans grow to adulthood, reproduce, and survive to about age 70 or more while consuming about 30% of the ideal nutrient intake.

Even the healthiest among us are unlikely to live past 120 years, but there is reason to believe that a life span of 150 years is attainable. Human experience and animal research indicates several critical nutrients, which tend to be low in the American diet, could extend the life span of even the healthiest individual. These nutrients would be simple to increase through modest supplementation.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine states that a folic acid supplement of 400 micrograms (mcg) per day would be prudent for all women of childbearing age, and certain women need even more. As a vegetarian, your folic acid intake is roughly twice that of other women, but it is still not as much as some women require, about 2,000 mcg/day, in order to prevent birth defects in their children.

Also, related to your vegetarian lifestyle, you are more at risk of vitamin B-12 deficiency than women who eat some animal foods. Vitamin B-12 stored in the liver can easily last five years and perhaps longer. After 10 years with negligible vitamin B-12 intake, you may be close to running out, and a supplement would be prudent. If you decide to take the folic acid supplement you should also take a vitamin B-12 supplement since a folic acid supplement might also mask the common signs and symptoms of vitamin B-12 deficiency.

Diets low in animal protein can also be low in vitamin B-6, and if you have taken birth control pills in times past or are taking them now, these increase requirements for vitamin B-6. A vitamin B-6 supplement of 25 mg per day is considered entirely safe, and in several types of research this amount of vitamin B-6 has been found to optimize the enzymes that require it. Instead of taking vitamin B-6 alone, better to take a B-complex that supplies 25 mg of the major B-vitamins as insurance that the other B-complex vitamins will remain balanced.

Although you are free of disease at present, as we age several diseases become more prevalent. There are nutrients that can help us avoid the common maladies of aging. For example, vitamin C supplements reduce the incidence of macular degeneration, calcium supplements help avoid osteoporosis, and vitamin E supplements keep hearts healthier. You have gone a very long way toward living a long and healthy life, and just a few extra tweaks in the form of selected food supplements would be appropriate.

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