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Question: My teenage son wants me to buy him a muscle-building food supplement. I know the advertising for these products claims that they work, but my impression is that they aren't effective. Am I right?

Answer: Yes. Unfortunately, these supplements are easily available, costly - and very well advertised. Not long ago, the Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects of the Centers for Disease Control reviewed 12 popular fitness publications. They counted advertisements, averaging 26 per magazine, for no less than 89 brands of supplements, and a total of 311 products containing 235 different ingredients.Many of these were being promoted for their supposed ability to improve fitness or athletic performance. But not one of them contained ingredients that could be expected to build bigger muscles or increase muscle strength. That can be accomplished only by exercises in which muscles must work harder.

At the least, these products are harmless, if expensive. A month's supply - guaranteed to do absolutely nothing - usually costs $25 or more. But there is some concern about brands that contain large amounts of single amino acids, the building blocks of protein. The problem is that the safety of large doses of individual amino acids has not been tested in humans. It is possible that in excess, these supplements could upset the body's internal balance.

Your skepticism is well-placed. Your money would be better spent on buying foods that contribute to a healthful diet, thereby helping ensure that your son will perform at his peak.

Question: Recently I visited an elderly relative in a nursing home. Although she's nearly 90 and physically quite disabled, her mind is perfectly clear. I called before I went to ask what she wanted, knowing that her major complaint is dissatisfaction with the food. She asked for a submarine sandwich, potato chips and a diet soda. I didn't know if this would be good for her, but I complied. As far as I know, she suffered no ill effects. Still, I'm wondering, did I do the right thing?

Answer: That's a difficult question to answer without knowing more details of her case. Next time, you may want to check with the nursing staff to make sure there is no medical reason why a brief diversion from the usual fare would be harmful. Many individuals in nursing homes don't get enough calories, some because they no longer have an interest in food, others because the food is not prepared in an appealing way. Therefore, the fact that your elderly friend still has a healthy interest in eating should be supported.

Age alone is hardly a reason to be denied a treat now and then; some would argue quite the reverse. If, as you report, your friend is in a nursing home solely because of her physical limitations, she is in the best position to judge whether she is still able to enjoy an occasional indulgence without suffering an uncomfortable case of indigestion.

Question: I know that milk contains vitamin D and that yogurt is derived from milk. So why isn't vitamin D listed on the nutrition information label on the yogurt I eat?

Answer: Milk, as it comes from the cow, has only a small and variable amount of vitamin D. Exactly how much depends on what the cow has eaten and on how much time the cow has spent out in the sunlight. Furthermore, since D is a fat-soluble vitamin, what D there is in the original milk gets removed in skim-milk and low-fat products.

The reasons there is vitamin D in your milk is due to the hand of man, not nature. Most milk is treated in one of two ways to boost its D content. It is exposed to ultraviolet light, which converts a sterol in the milk to vitamin D, producing a limited amount, or a concentrate is added to bring D levels up to 400 International Units per quart. However, vitamin D is not added in this way to yogurt; hence it doesn't appear on the label.

1992, Washington Post Writers Group