Gender-specific vitamins: Do women, men need specifically formulated supplements?

With the exception of extra iron for men — if your doctor recommends against that — a unisex supplement and healthy diet likely will meet your nutrient needs.

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Supplement formulas designated for men or women of different ages, life stages, lifestyles, and with varying health concerns are available.

Supplement formulas designated for men or women of different ages, life stages, lifestyles, and with varying health concerns are available.

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Studies show most Americans don’t get enough of several important nutrients from their diets, and a multivitamin-and-mineral supplement can help fill in those gaps. But does it make scientific sense to choose one tailored specifically to women or men?

Supplement formulas designated for men or women of different ages, life stages, lifestyles, and with varying health concerns are available. But do you need one?

Men and women have different nutritional needs. The recommended dietary allowances set by the National Academy of Sciences are broken down by female and male needs in addition to age groups.

For women, the differences are most dramatic during pregnancy, breastfeeding and before and after menopause. Some differences in nutrient needs are due just to differences in typical body size between most men and women.

Iron needs are greater for women, especially in childbearing years. Calcium requirements for women rise during and after menopause because of the risk of developing osteoporosis as estrogen levels drop. Folic acid requirements double in women immediately before and during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester, to prevent spina bifida in the fetus.

The need for several nutrients — including zinc, chromium, riboflavin, niacin, choline, thiamin and vitamins A, C and K — are slightly higher for men than women. Men’s supplements generally have little or no iron, as it can build up over time and lead to organ damage, a consequence more common in men.

Calcium, iron and folic acid are likely to be higher in women’s supplements than in men’s, but supplements that include small amounts of herbs, like black cohosh for women or saw palmetto for men, are unlikely to be helpful.

A vitamin-and-mineral supplement is supposed to be like an insurance policy for the diet, not a substitute. With the exception of extra iron for men — if your doctor recommends against that — a unisex supplement and a healthy diet is likely a good bet for meeting your nutrient needs.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by experts on health and nutrition.

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