When Is the Right Time to Take Your Vitamins?

Nurse's little helpers? When vitamins and supplements are a good idea

Vitamins and other dietary supplements can be helpful for nurses. But, alas, they are not a magic formula. "Not in my book!" says Page Love MS, RDN, LD, CSSD, of Nutrifit Sport Therapy Inc. in Atlanta. Love works with a handful of nurse clients and also athletes, both of which need to perform optimally and tend to experience lots of physical and psychological stress. She focuses on reregulating your eating schedule and eating nutrient-dense foods before putting money into buying multivitamins or popping flaxseed oil tablets.

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Rahaf Al Bochi, RDN, LD, also encourages nurses to follow a "food first" approach. While it's simpler to shop the vitamin aisle than it is to plan balanced meals, whole foods are far more likely to "optimize your energy levels and nutrition," Al Bochi says. "Incorporating a Mediterranean-style eating pattern, which focuses on plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, dairy and fish can be a place to start."

Al Bochi is spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of the Atlanta-based Olive Tree Nutrition. She'll tell you it's no coincidence that the most-publicized components of advertised supplements are the same ones in the most delicious healthy foods. And the body has a much easier time putting nutrients to work when ingested as easily-absorbed food. "A variety of colored vegetables provide antioxidants and vitamins and minerals and fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which play a role in reducing inflammation," Al Bochi says. "If you are eating a well-balanced diet then you likely don't require any extra supplements."

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Speaking of magic, though, that's what it might take for some nurses to suddenly start eating right, especially with all that junk food you might be wolfing down on those extra-short breaks. Fear not, Al Bochi, Love and other dieticians aren't going to judge. And they do allow that vitamins and other dietary supplements can give an eating plan a small boost. "If you feel that you are not getting a variety of foods into your meals then you may need a supplement such as a multivitamin, vitamin D, calcium or fish oil, to name a few," Al Bochi notes.

Love adds that while she wouldn't make a blanket policy of putting anyone on a supplement, some of them are "helpful when someone has poor eating habits." If you cannot or will not get enough dairy, sure, go for a calcium supplement. But make sure you don't take calcium and iron at the same time (this is common in many multivitamins), because they compete for absorption. "I recommend my clients take calcium in the morning and iron at night after they have food in their system," Love says. "That will buffer the iron supplement from causing any stomach ailments." Love also recommends antioxidant vitamins for anyone who doesn't eat enough fruits and vegetables.

As for knowing if you need a supplement or not, the best approach is simply to evaluate your nutrient intake using one of the common apps available online. A dietitian consult might also be a good idea - and they are much easier to find than magicians.

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