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The European Food Safety Authority has weighed in on the debate about how much vitamin D, calcium, and essential fatty acids can be taken safely over the long term. These recommendations, which are issued by the Institute of Medicine in the United States as well, are known as tolerable upper intake levels (ULs). The science on nutrient safety isn't always 100% clear, so it can be helpful to consider where different panels of health experts around the globe set these limits.
Compare and contrast
The upper end of safe intakes for most nutrients are not ordinarily reached or surpassed by people eating a typical diet in Europe or the US. For the majority, food alone will not put a person in danger of nutrient toxicity. But when adding dietary supplements and fortified foods, upper intake levels are needed to protect people against toxicity. We can use these numbers to guide our choices for safe use of dietary supplements and fortified foods.
Here's how tolerable upper intake levels compare on both sides of the Atlantic:
The UL for children 11 years old and up and adults is 4,000 IU per day in the US and in Europe.
The UL for 8- to 11-year-olds is 4,000 IU per day in the US, though in Europe, the UL for this age group is lower, at 2,000 IU daily.
The UL for 1- to 10-year-old children is 2,000 IU per day in Europe, though in the US this age group is broken down further. In the US the UL is 2,520 IU per day for 1- to 3-year-olds, 3,000 IU per day for 4- to 8-year-olds, and 4,000 IU per day for 9- to 13-year-olds.
The UL for infants--children under 1 year old--is 1,000 IU per day in Europe, though in the US, again, this age group is broken down further; the UL is 1,000 IU per day for newborns up to 6 months, and increases to 1,520 IU daily for infants 6 months to 1 year old.
In Europe, the UL for calcium is simple: 2,500 mg per day for all adults.
For children, the European Food Safety Authority has indicated that, "Although available data do not allow the setting of a UL for infants, children, or adolescents, no risk has been identified with highest current levels of calcium intake in these age groups."
In the US, the calcium ULs are broken down by age, with daily levels set at:
Newborns to 6 months: 1,000 mg
6 months to 1 year: 1,500 mg
1 year to 8 years: 2,500 mg
9 to 18 years: 3,000 mg
Adults up to 50 years: 2,500 mg
Adults 51 years and older: 2,000 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, 18 years and older: 2,500 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding women, younger than 18 years: 3,000 mg
Essential fatty acids
The European Food Safety Authority states that there isn't enough scientific evidence to set safe upper limit values for essential fatty acids, which include the long-chain omega-3 fats found in fish and seafood. However, they indicate that supplementing up to 5 grams per day appears to be safe, and recommend all adults get a minimum of 250 to 500 mg of these omega-3 fats daily for good health.
In the US, there are no official safe upper limits for essential fats, though the FDA indicates that intakes up to 3 grams per day are safe. The American Heart Association indicates that aiming for 900 mg per day of omega-3 fats--the amount that research suggests can lessen cardiovascular disease risk--is a good goal for all Americans.
Supplement with savvy, factor in fortification
There is much overlap between the safe upper limits for vitamin D, calcium, and essential fatty acids set by health agencies in Europe and in the US. Where these numbers diverge, you should consult your doctor or dietitian with any questions you have about how much of these nutrients are safe for you.
Also keep in mind the following points as you plan out your nutrition choices:
Use safe upper limits. These are set to provide guidance on appropriate nutrient intakes for the general population. There are always exceptions: for example, higher levels might be needed to address deficiency. Also, higher amounts may be needed to treat a particular medical condition. Consult your doctor or dietitian if you feel you need higher levels of any nutrient.
Keep track of all sources of nutrient intake. Many foods are now fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and/or essential fatty acids. If you use fortified foods, you may not need any dietary supplements of these nutrients at all.
Go to food first. Most nutrients are best absorbed, and occur in safe amounts, in their naturally occurring form in food. For example, our bodies do best with calcium from dairy, green leafy vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds, rather than larger quantities of calcium taken all at once as a dietary supplement.
Remember balance. Sometimes, taking large quantities of one nutrient can make it harder for our bodies to absorb or use other important nutrients. Before you supplement single nutrients, talk with a knowledgeable healthcare provider about getting a good balance of all vital nutrients.
(European Food Safety Authority, "Upper intake levels reviewed for vitamin D and calcium" http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/120727a.htm and "EFSA assesses safety of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids" http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/120727.htm published July 2012)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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