Do I need to take so many pills…?

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Why do you think you need to take so many pills? Look instead at your eating patterns - not vitamin deficiencies - as contributing to the low energy.

By Nancy Clark

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Dear Nancy,
I am a 24 year old grad student who runs six miles a day. I take many, many vitamins each day, and am wondering if this is all a big hoax. I follow what books and doctors have told me along the way, and I am just trying to maintain my health. The pills are not only a hassle to take but are also expensive.




1 Super-B complex (supposedly for energy)  


1 Centrum Daily Multivitamin (because doc says so)


3 Citracal + D tablets (helps build bone)


1 Magnesium (helps absorb calcium


2 Glucosamine-Chondroitin tabs (supposedly helps joints


1 Conjugated Linoleic Acid (build muscle and lose fat?)


1 E (supposedly helps skin and nails)       

2 Cinnamon tabs (supposedly helps blood sugar)  


1 Flaxseed oil capsule (doctor said so)            

1 Fish oil capsule (doctor said we need Omega 3)   




I try to eat well and exercise. A typical day looks like this:


 Approximate Calories
BREAKFAST: packet oatmeal + an orange 200
RUN (after b’fast): 6 miles-5 days/wk; lift- 2/wk (-600)
SNACK (post-run): light string cheese + 20 almonds.   250
LUNCH: large salad, dry + can of tuna + 4 oz. yogurt  350
SNACK: Luna Bar    200
DINNER: large salad, dry + 2 Boca Burgers + cooked veg 400

I inevitably end up grazing in the afternoon and evening on goldfish crackers, cookies, trail mix, hot cocoa, candy bars. Every night without fail, I succumb to some sort of chocolate bar, frozen yogurt, or both.

Writing all this down makes me feel like I eat too much... Help!!


Dear Jessica,
You spend ~$75 per month on nutrients you could easily eat at meals. Here’s my assessment:

At 5’4”, 120 lbs., and running six miles a day, your body requires (believe it or not) about 2,400 calories. In about 1,500 wholesome calories, you can consume the nutrients you need. In 2,400 calories, you have the opportunity to consume even more nutrients and can eliminate the pills.

To your detriment, your skimpy meals account for only 1,400 calories. No wonder you graze a lot; you are hungry! To abate the snacking (and cravings for sweets), experiment with eating about 600 calories of wholesome food at four meals a day: breakfast, first lunch (10-11 a.m.), second lunch (3-4 p.m), and dinner. Why just snack at 10:00 or 3:00 when you are hungry enough to eat a whole meal? By changing your endless grazing into an early lunch, then a second lunch (a sandwich or yogurt/granola/nuts), you’ll boost your intake of the same vitamins/minerals you now take as a supplement.

Why so many pills?
My question for you is this: Why do you think you need to take so many pills? My guess is you want to boost your energy. Assuming that is your case, look instead at your eating patterns—not vitamin deficiencies—as contributing to the low energy that results from under-eating in the active part of your day. If you fuel your body better during the day, you’ll eat less (dessert) at night, and will reduce the need for supplements.

Here are some thoughts about the supplements you are taking:
• If you want to take a daily multivitamin for health insurance, that’s your choice. But first read food labels. Your (highly fortified) Luna Bar snack is a vitamin pill in itself! No need to duplicate.

• No need to take Super-B complex; you already get 100% of the B-vitamins in the Luna Bar (and/or the multi-vitamin). While B-vitamins help convert food into energy, I’ll bet your lack of energy is due to lack of fuel, not vitamins. Note: Women of childbearing age should have a strong intake of the B-vitamin folic acid; it helps protect against certain birth defects. It is in fortified foods like your instant oatmeal and energy bar.

• The 3 Citracal + D tablets offer the recommended daily intake of calcium (1,000 mg) plus vitamin D. You can get that same amount by enjoying a lowfat calcium-rich food at 3 of your 4 daily meals. Simply cook your oatmeal in 1 cup milk (300 mg Calcium), enjoy a lunchtime cup of yogurt (300 mg Ca), and drink an 8 oz. milk (300 mg Ca) with dinner. (The small amount of calcium in other foods will provide the remaining 100 mg.) An active woman can easily afford to spend 100 calories per meal on a serving of lowfat calcium-rich food each day!

• Magnesium is already in the (fortified) Luna Bar, to say nothing of foods like peanut butter, nuts, greens (and dark chocolate). Could you add almonds to your oatmeal and enjoy a peanut butter sandwich for your second lunch?

• More research is needed to determine if Glucosamine-Chondroitin tabs will slow joint degeneration. Stay tuned.

• CLA is not the answer for fat loss. To lose fat, fuel more by day, and then eat less dessert at night. Theoretically, eating 100 to 200 calories less at night can lead to 10 to 20 pounds of fat loss in a year. CLA is also not the answer for building muscles; lifting weights does that!

• Do you really think one single nutrient (E) can make your nails and skin better? Your body needs the whole package of nutrients supplied by a variety of wholesome foods. You can get vitamin E from almonds, peanut butter, olive oil, soy milk, avocado—and your (fortified) Luna Bar.

• Cinnamon tabs might help stabilize blood glucose, but exercise does a far better job. If you have swings in blood sugar, I’ll bet you have run out of fuel. More breakfast and lunch is the solution, not cinnamon tablets. Alternatively, you could put cinnamon in your oatmeal.

• Flax is a weak source of omega-3s; fish is more powerful in terms of heart health. The American Heart Association recommends eating 8 ounces of oily fish a week. (light tuna, salmon, sardines). The tuna you eat at lunch does the job. Get hooked on fish, not pills!

What to do?
To get the vitamins and minerals your body needs, eat quality food; it is the best source of nourishment for active people! To date, every major medical organization recommends protecting your health with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat dairy, lean meats, and plant proteins—not pills. If you want help enhancing your intake of powerhouse foods, go to and use the referral network to find a board certified specialist in sports dietetics. The cost of the personal consult will be far less than the ~ $1,000 per year you spend on pills!

One example of a nutrient-dense sports diet
This menu builds on what Jessica typically eats, but trades the snack-calories into wholesome foods at substantial meals.

Breakfast (600 calories, divided pre- / post-exercise)
                                                            Approximate Calories
1 packet oatmeal                                            100
1 cup lowfat milk*                                           100 *cook oatmeal in milk
1 orange                                                         100
Large apple                                                    150
2 string cheeses                                             150

First lunch (600 calories)
Raw veggies (baby carrots, pepper)                50
2 slices hearty sandwich bread                      200
1 can tuna                                                      200 (limit to 2 cans/week)
2 Tbsp lite mayo                                             100

Second lunch (munched throughout the afternoon, as desired)
Luna Bar                                                        200
Yogurt . lowfat                                               150
30 almonds                                                    250

Dinner/pm snack
Large colorful salad                                       100
1/2 Tbsp Olive oil in dressing                          50
2 Boca Burgers                                              200
bowl of cooked veggie                                  100
Hot cocoa made with milk                              150


                                                         Total = 2350


Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports
Dietetics) offers private consultations to casual and competitive athletes in her practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Food Guide for Marathoners, and Cyclist’s Food Guide are available via See also

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date: March 5, 2008