Looking for ways to help you and your family's health and well-being? The quality of your diet is one very important place to start. Nutrition has an enormous impact on your health, affecting how you feel, how well you function, how well your body can fight infection . even how long you live. It can also play a role in preventing many diseases and certain birth defects.

There's no question that a balanced diet (along with regular exercise) is critical to health maintenance and disease prevention (see "Food Packs a Punch" ). However, some researchers believe that certain nutrients are deficient in soil, and that as a result, the food we consume--even if it's the correct food--may be lacking in some nutrients. Since plants cannot manufacture minerals, and soil that was once enriched with minerals may be depleted, supplements can help make up for a deficiency of minerals in the foods we eat, as well as give us an additional health boost.

A growing body of evidence suggests that dietary supplements play an important part in health maintenance. Studies show that both men and women fail to meet the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for a variety of important nutrients, including calcium, vitamin E, vitamin B 6, magnesium, copper, and zinc. It's no wonder that people are turning to supplements to get the important nutrients they require and to treat specific ailments--as many as 50 percent of Americans use dietary supplements. And in 2000 alone, they spent an estimated $15.7 billion on more than 29,000 different products--from vitamins and minerals to herbal supplements and other specialty products.

The range of dietary supplements now available to you and your family is vast. And so are the benefits they may provide. From your heart and mind to your joints and bones, there are dietary supplements purporting to help you from head to toe. Many benefits of supplements are supported by sound scientific evidence; others are not. This is mainly because supplement research is still in its infancy. Knowing the difference is essential for responsible supplement use.

Supplements are often placed into broad categories that describe their action and claimed and/or potential benefits. For example:

  • Antioxidants (such as vitamins C and E) are substances that slow oxidative processes in the body, protecting the body from damage caused by the cell-damaging molecules called "free radicals." They reduce the transformation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol) into damaging substances and may reduce the risk of heart disease, prevent cancer, and protect the body from the effects of aging.

  • Anti-inflammatory supplements (such as glucosamine) are thought to suppress tissue irritation, therefore reducing associated pain.

In general, all adults, and all teenagers and children with poor appetites or irregular eating habits, can benefit from a multivitamin with minerals, since it provides extra insurance of obtaining the nutrients needed for good health. For example, Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. Thinking of having cataract surgery or laser eye surgery in later life is not the answer - the answer lies in preventitive measures.

Other supplements that may be necessary, depending upon a person's age, gender, and eating habits, are:

  • Calcium--For people who don't regularly eat dairy products or other calcium-rich foods and for postmenopausal women at risk for osteoporosis.

  • Folic acid (folate)--For women planning to become pregnant. Since many pregnancies are unplanned, it is recommended that all women of childbearing age (who might become pregnant) receive additional folic acid.

  • Iron--For pregnant women and people with anemia.

  • Magnesium--For people who don't eat vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

  • Vitamin B 12 --For vegetarians (adults, teenagers, and children) who do not eat animal products, or for adults over age 50 who are deficient in this vitamin.

  • Vitamin D--For older adults and people who are rarely in sunlight.

You may also consider using other key supplements (such as vitamins C or E), herbal products (such as St. John's wort or ginkgo biloba), or specialty supplements (such as glucosamine) for specific conditions. Remember, it's never too late to begin reaping the rewards of dietary supplements. You too can enjoy greater health with a few simple steps.