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Vitamins D, E and calcium: How much is just right?

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The most-asked question on our TV and radio shows is this: “How much should I take?” Lately, that blank is filled in with “vitamin D-3” or “calcium” or “vitamin E” or “selenium.” Or all four. We’ll deal with selenium in the future. As for the other three, the endless headlines about them create more confusion than Hurricane Irene did! Don’t know what guidelines to swallow? Here’s what we take and why:

We don’t take any vitamin D. We take vitamin D-3.

As regular readers know, D-3 is the most active form and the kind your body makes naturally when sunlight hits your skin. For decades, D was seen mainly as a wingman for calcium, helping it build bones. But then scientists began announcing one potent power after another: vitamin D fights cancer. And diabetes, hypertension, multiple sclerosis and more. Low levels trigger obesity in kids. And asthma, digestive woes and pneumonia. The research was good, the findings important.

Then it became clear that low D-3 was nearly epidemic. Then came the inevitable aftermath: hypermarketing of megadoses of D-3 on the Internet. Megadoses of D-3 can wreak havoc on your kidneys and arteries.

Should you take D-3? Absolutely. In fact, you almost have to, because it’s tough to get enough from food or even from sunlight hitting your skin. Fact: 60 percent to 80 percent of folks who live north of an imaginary line running from Atlanta to Los Angeles are short on D in the winter. Those who live south of that line are often D-ficient in the summer, when they stay indoors in the air conditioning. How to get the right amount:

– Get as much as you can from food. There’s a fair amount in canned tuna, sardines, eggs and D-fortified dairy foods, OJ and cereals.

– Get your D-3 levels tested if you suspect you’re low. You probably are if you have dark skin, always wear sunscreen and a hat, are obese, live in the north, are elderly or have trouble digesting fats. The blood test can be fluky, so if you get an extreme result (below 50 or above 80), ask your doc to run it again.

– If your D-3 levels are OK, cap your total daily intake at 1,000 IU. Make that 1,200 after 60.

We aim for 1,200 mg of calcium a day. But we get half of it from food.

Here’s the challenge with calcium: It’s kind of easy to get too much, and that can hurt your kidneys, including causing painful kidney stones. Ouch.

– Get as much as you can from food. Calcium abounds in dairy products, spinach, canned salmon and sardines. There’s also some in broccoli and kale.

– Get the rest from a supplement. Buy a combo form with 400 to 500 mg of magnesium — it keeps calcium from making you constipated — and some D-3, to help absorption. Count this in your D-3 total.

– Buy calcium citrate. It’s the most easily absorbed.

– Space out your intake. Your body can absorb only so much calcium at once, so if you have milk and cereal for breakfast, take your calcium later.

At one time, E was the king of antioxidants, credited with all kinds of anti-aging, disease-fighting powers. Then came study after study showing that taking more than 400 IU of E a day actually increased deaths from any cause. Turned out that while antioxidants like E may fight oxidation damage in the blood, they sometimes cause it inside your cells.

When it’s smart to shop on an empty stomach

Do you pride yourself on being a savvy shopper, someone who can’t be duped into paying too much for too little? Then don’t go food shopping if your tummy is rumbling. On the other hand, being hungry is a perfect time to shop for an extravagant suit, silk tie or the ultimate “Sex and the City” temptation: fantasy shoes. You’ll have a great time doing it and walk out happily empty-handed!

It’s one weird quirk: If you’re hungry, you’ll happily splurge on food but turn into Scrooge McDuck when it comes to paying for anything else.

The key to this shopping mystery is a little gremlin called ghrelin. No, it’s not a Harry Potter character. It’s a hormone produced in your stomach that shouts out to your brain, “Feed me! I’m hungry!” When ghrelin’s message gets through, it turns into: “That food looks so good. Pay anything for it, now!” Researchers don’t know exactly why ghrelin has the opposite effect on your willingness to spring for things you can’t eat, but it does.

So when you’re hungry, feel free to bypass the grocery and head for the mall. It’s even healthy. Older adults who shop daily enjoy a 27 percent lower mortality rate than their stay-at-home pals. (Is it the walking or the window-shopping? Probably both.) Just grab something to eat before you head back to the grocery, like a small bag of heart-healthy walnuts (six halves) or almonds (12 will do the ghrelin-suppressing trick). It’ll keep your waistline slim and your wallet safe.

The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show” and Mike Roizen of Cleveland Clinic, are authors of “YOU: Losing Weight.” For more information go to www.RealAge.com.

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