It's tempting to think of vitamin and mineral supplements as little bits of dietary insurance.
In a world where french fries are often the only vegetable on the plate, many of us hope to fill the nutritional gaps with a tablet or gel cap.
For most of us, that offers a false sense of security.
With few exceptions -- folic acid for women of childbearing age, and in certain circumstances vitamin D or B12 for others -- the benefits of supplements have not been borne out by research.
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There's little, if any, evidence to indicate that supplements are helpful for healthy adults.
In fact, a paper published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that in a study of more than 160,000 older adult women, there were no significant differences in risk of death, heart disease or certain forms of cancer between supplement takers and women who did not take supplements.
Still, that doesn't stop many people from spending big money on single or multivitamin and mineral supplements. The rationale: It can't hurt, and it may help.
It's possible that is true, but it's also possible that it isn't.
Some research has found increased health risks in people taking vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements, for example. And high doses of some nutrients can cause imbalances when individual nutrients, such as minerals, interact.
A better way to protect your health is to get your nutrients -- and supplements -- from whole foods. It's likely that nutrients act synergistically and are most effective when they're present in the amounts and combinations found in nature.
That means eating as well as you can every day.
When you can't or if you worry that you might be missing something you need, think differently about how you might supplement your diet.
Think in terms of quick and easy, nutrient-dense whole foods that can deliver in a single serving a substantial amount of the nutrients most of us need in greater quantities.
Then add those foods to your diet whenever you can.
Great supplements include:
A dose of leafy greens. Add a large scoop of baby spinach leaves from the salad bar to your plate. Roll them into a bean burrito or mix them into an iceberg lettuce salad. Stir a scoop of cooked greens into a bowl of lentil soup or add a handful of chopped romaine lettuce to a plate of nachos. Greens are rich in fiber, folic acid, calcium, iron, vitamins A and C and potassium.
Deep orange fruits and vegetables. Grab a handful of dried apricots for a portable snack, or slice a peach into a bowl of cooked oatmeal. Baby carrots dipped in salad dressing are a handy appetizer. Add a thick slice of ripe tomato to a sandwich to supplement your diet with vitamins A and C and fiber.
Beans, peas and lentils. Get the side order of beans when you eat at Taco Bell. Dip your chips into hummus or black bean dip. Keep a stash of soup cups (the add-hot-water-and-stir type) at the office -- bean, split pea, chili and lentil varieties. Legumes add fiber, protein, folic acid, manganese, iron and a long list of other minerals.
A handful of cereal grains. Add wheat germ to casseroles or hot cereal. When you want a midnight snack, reach for bran flakes or shredded wheat. Grains add fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals to your diet.
Assorted seeds and nuts. Sprinkle them on salads and stir them into muffin batter. They add fiber, protein, essential fatty acids and a long list of vitamins and minerals.
Supplement your diet, but do it with natural packages of nutrients found in a varied supply of whole foods.
Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to email@example.com.