New research finds evidence about the best supplements for health.
Most Americans aren’t getting the vitamins and minerals they need to promote a long and healthy life, warns a new article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Our diet is terrible, from the point of view of getting the nutrients that we need, and we’re aging ourselves faster,” the author, Bruce Ames, PhD, told Healthline.
“I think we could all live a lot longer if we ate a better diet,” he said.
Ames is a senior scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and a professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
After conducting a review of research in the field of nutritional science, Ames has identified 41 nutrients that may play an important role in promoting healthy aging.
These nutrients include 14 known vitamins, including vitamins A, B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12, C, D, E, K, biotin, choline, folic acid, niacin, and pantothenate.
They also include 16 essential minerals, including calcium, chloride, chromium, cobalt, copper, iodine, iron, manganese, magnesium, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, sulfur, and zinc.
Additionally, Ames identified 11 other substances that aren’t currently classified as vitamins but should be, according to him. These include two types of omega-3 fatty acids and nine amino acids.
Altogether, Ames calls these nutrients “longevity vitamins” due to the role he believes they play in promoting a long and healthy life.
The body prioritizes short-term survival
The idea of longevity vitamins builds on a concept that Ames developed more than a decade ago, known as the triage theory.
According to this theory, the body rations scarce nutrients in a way that privileges short-term survival and reproduction over long-term health.
“When you get low on a vitamin or mineral, nature doesn’t want you to die because it wants you to reproduce. So how can it defend itself?” Ames asked.
“Well, one way is to trade long-term health for short-term health. The way it does that is the enzymes that are essential for survival get a priority,” he explained.
When the body takes in fewer nutrients than it needs, he said, it directs the available nutrients to biochemical processes that are essential for short-term survival and reproduction.
In comparison, he continued, the body grants lower priority to biochemical processes that are important for long-term maintenance, such as DNA repair. Longevity vitamins help to support those processes.
Over time, even low-level nutrient deficiencies may impair the body’s ability to heal itself, raising the risk of chronic illness and premature death.
A nutrient-rich diet is essential
In order to get the vitamins and minerals that we need, Ames emphasized the importance of eating a varied and nutrient-rich diet instead of popping the right pills.
According to Robin Foroutan, MS, RDN, HHC, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, that means eating a lot of plant-based foods.
“Most of what you’re eating should be coming from plants and not altered too much from how they grow in nature,” she said.
“Think about it like a therapeutic dose of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, sea vegetables, and all of the different goodies that nature has for us,” she added.
Cary Kreutzer, EdD, MPH, RDN, FAND, a registered dietitian and associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, agrees.
“We really don’t need to eat the amount of meat that we do,” Kreutzer told Healthline. “In fact, a plant-based diet is much better.”
Like Foroutan, Kreutzer emphasized the importance of eating a wide variety of different colored fruits and vegetables, as well as other plant-based products.
Fish is another healthful source of nutrients, she added, including some of the amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids that Ames identified as important for healthy aging.
These nutrient-rich foods form the cornerstone of the Mediterranean Diet and DASH Diet, two eating patterns that have been linked to many positive health outcomes.
No one-size-fits-all supplement
For most people, Kreutzer said, eating a nutrient-rich diet should be the first-line approach to meeting their nutritional needs. Simply popping a multivitamin is not enough.
“I don’t think we’re at a point yet where we can put longevity vitamins in a bar or a pill and that’s going to be it,” she said.
However, some people might benefit from taking specific supplements.
For example, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that based on food intake alone, the majority of Americans are getting less than the estimated average requirement (EAR) for vitamin D. The same study found that roughly half of Americans are getting less than the EAR for magnesium.
In addition to adjusting their diets, many of those people might benefit from taking a Vitamin D or magnesium supplement.
However, both Kreutzer and Foroutan emphasized the importance of taking an individualized approach to supplementation.
“Do I suggest supplements for people? I don’t think we can do a one-size-fits-all. I would prefer to look at an individual’s potential risk for deficiencies and need for additional nutrients,” Kreutzer said.
“I would want to look at their health background, any medical conditions they have, and any laboratory data that we have,” she added.
Each person’s biochemical needs are slightly different, Kreutzer and Foroutan explained.
Without guidance from a nutrition expert, it can be difficult to determine which supplements you might benefit from taking.
The supplement industry is also largely unregulated, which adds to the challenges of identifying supplements that might have legitimate health benefits.
“I think that it is incredibly difficult to navigate the world of supplements by yourself,” Foroutan said.
“There is a lot of conflicting information out there, there is not much of a one-size-fits-all plan, and there’s also a very wide range of quality standards within dietary supplements,” she added.
That’s why she encourages people to work with a dietitian to learn if they have any nutrient deficiencies, and make an individualized plan to meet their particular needs.