Are Nutrition-Enhanced Foods Good for You?

Superjuices, energy shots, vitamin-infused nutrition bars—grocery stores teem with foods that have been pumped up with nutrients during processing. That’s good, right? Not necessarily. Eat enough fortified foods in a day—especially along with a multivitamin or a single-ingredient supplement like calcium—and you could end up not only with more of an ingredient than you need but also more than is good for you.

You may feel like you’re getting advice from all sides: Increase your intake of calcium, iron, vegetables and water; exercise more; take more vitamins; use more sunscreen. Your doctors, your friends and family may reinforce the notion that you are not doing enough to improve your health or reduce risk of illness. In fact, when you also consider all the “routine” recommendations for medical care — a yearly physical examination; getting your eyes checked; seeing your dentist regularly; getting your vaccinations; getting tested for osteoporosis, heart disease, colon cancer, cervical cancer and so on — doing the “right things” may seem like a full-time job. And that’s if you’re perfectly healthy.

With all the pressure to do more for your health, it may be surprising to learn that in a number of situations, the problem is not too little but too much of a “good thing.”

Several rather common conditions are marked by too much of something that is usually good for us. These include:

#1 – Hemochromatosis

Due to a genetic mutation, the body absorbs too much iron from the diet and deposits it throughout the body. Although recommendations to take extra iron are common, particularly for women who lose blood each month during menstruation, iron overload is a condition in which taking extra iron is not a good idea.

#2 – Hypercalcemia

This condition is present when the blood level of calcium is high (hyper = high, calcemia = calcium in blood) for whatever reason. Among the more common causes are excessive intake of calcium and/or vitamin D, overactive parathyroid glands (called hyperparathyroidism, in which there is an excessive amount of parathyroid hormone, a hormone that regulates calcium levels in the blood), certain cancers, and sarcoidosis (a disease in which inflamed tissues convert too much vitamin D into its active form, leading to too much absorption of calcium from the intestinal tract). Again, because the diets of many women do not provide enough calcium, taking extra is a good idea as one way to prevent osteoporosis, but not for people with hypercalcemia or a tendency to develop it.

#3 – Hypervitaminosis A

If you take more than 50,000 IU a day (that is, more than 10 times the government’s recommended daily allowance, or RDA), you could wind up with problems related to too much vitamin A, including headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, irritability and dry skin. Elevated calcium develops due to bone breakdown, a process that also may lead to osteoporosis and bone fractures. Liver damage, hair loss, poor balance and visual problems may develop over time.

#4 – Vitamin D Toxicity

If you take too much vitamin D or if you already have a condition, such as sarcoidosis, that makes you prone to having a high calcium level, you could develop hypercalcemia, as above.

#5 – Water Overload

You can become quite ill if you have too much water in your system, whether due to drinking too much or due to a specific illness. Recommendations to drink more water abound, even for people who are healthy and have no obvious reason to be dehydrated; for them, extra water is almost surely unnecessary and occasionally harmful.

Staying Safe with Supplements

With all the warnings about increasing one’s intake of a variety of nutrients, how can one avoid taking too much? First of all, read nutrition information labels, including the recommended daily allowance; do not increase the dose of supplements above what is recommended by your healthcare professional, and remember that “a little is good, more is better” is not always the best approach.

A balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean protein, whole grains, and legumes should provide all you need of major vitamins and minerals, plus fiber and a rainbow of healthful phytochemicals. If you eat a restricted diet or need more of certain nutrients, a multivitamin or individual supplement can plug the gaps. To avoid becoming over-fortified, read labels on processed foods. Many are nutrition-enhanced foods to make up for the nutrients lost during processing.

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If you do need additional supplements, follow directions to the letter. Also, inform your doctor if you are taking supplements. They can interact with your medicines, and your doctor needs to be informed so they can monitor it.

How can supplements or nutrition-enhanced foods interact with your medicines?

Even too much (or erratic) ingestion of certain fruits and vegetables can cause problems! If you eat broccoli in large quantities or in amounts that vary over time, its vitamin K content can counteract blood thinning effects. In people taking the common blood thinner, warfarin (Coumadin), broccoli and other natural foods that contain significant amount of vitamin K, such as spinach and Brussels sprouts, may need to be avoided or at least closely monitored with blood tests. The same is true for nutrition-enhanced foods containing the particular nutrient.

And for grapefruit juice lovers, an interaction may increase the potency of certain medications such as cyclosporine, atorvastatin and diltiazem. However, if you take your medicines and the grapefruit juice at the same time each day, tell your doctors about your diet, and have proper monitoring regularly, you don’t necessarily have to give up grapefruit juice.

Always, always read the nutrition labels and be well-informed on your medical conditions and the medicines you take. While for the ‘average’ person (if such a person exists), this won’t matter, it doesn’t mean it won’t affect you.

Contributing Sources: ConsumerReports, Aetna

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