Should You Be Taking Supplements?

People choose to take supplements for a variety of different reasons, but do you actually need them? It is important to understand what they are and the different risks and benefits of taking supplements before adding them to your routine.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines dietary supplements as products taken by mouth that include a “dietary ingredient,” which can be vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, or other substances that are meant to supplement what you eat.

Keep in mind that food is generally the best way to get in all the nutrients that our bodies need. Choose a balanced diet with a variety of foods from each food group: fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, and dairy. Most people who eat a variety of foods don’t need to take supplements.

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If you are thinking about starting a supplement, make sure you have a reason to be taking that particular supplement and that there is research to support the claims (ask your primary care provider or dietitian for help with this). Supplements should not take the place of a healthy diet, but they can sometimes help your body get the nutrients that it needs.

Who May Need a Supplement?

Some groups of people should consider taking supplements either because of increased needs or difficulty meeting nutrient needs. First, you may benefit from supplements if you have a known vitamin or mineral deficiency, especially if food alone is not able to reverse the deficiency.

Pregnant women are often started on prenatal vitamins to help them meet their increased nutrient needs during pregnancy. Iron and folic acid are especially important nutrients during pregnancy and are included in higher amounts in prenatal vitamins.

Older adults are another group that commonly could benefit from a supplement. Calcium and vitamin D supplementation may help prevent and manage osteoporosis, and supplementation with vitamin B12 may be helpful for some due to decreased absorption of this vitamin that occurs with aging.

In addition, any individuals who avoid major groups of food, such as those with multiple food allergies or intolerances, or those who choose to follow a vegan diet, may benefit from supplements to help meet their vitamin and mineral needs. When large groups of food are cut out from the diet, that limits the nutrients that we are getting in. For example, vegans may need a B12 supplement since the major source of B12 in the diet comes from animal products.

How to Take Supplements Safely

It’s important to know that even though supplements are regulated by the FDA, they are regulated differently than food and prescription medications. The FDA is only able to review the safety of dietary supplements once they are already on the market. Some supplements have been found to include a different amount of the dietary ingredient than is listed on the label, and some may even contain contaminants.

In order to make sure that you are choosing a quality supplement,

  1. Look for supplements that have been evaluated and reviewed by a separate organization, such as U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International. The supplement will have the organization’s seal on the label, which means the product has been tested and meets manufacturing standards, contains the ingredients on the label and does not include contaminants that may be harmful.
  2. Take supplements in recommended doses. For some vitamins and minerals, too much can be harmful. Many vitamins and minerals have a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), which is the highest dose you should safely take to avoid side effects or harm.
  3. Check the Daily Value (DV). The DV that you see on a supplement or food label usually lists the amount recommended per day for an average adult, but may also state the DV for infants, young children, or pregnant and lactating women. The DV may not be the amount that you specifically need, based on your age and sex. For more individualized recommendations, visit the USDA’s website and talk with your doctor and/or dietitian. With supplements, try to avoid high doses of any one nutrient, or doses that are well above 100% of the DV, unless this has been recommended by your doctor or dietitian. Remember, more is not always better when it comes to supplements.

There is a lot to consider when thinking about supplements, but the most important thing is to check with your provider and/or dietitian if you think you need to take a supplement or would like to start one. Some supplements may interact with medications or cause unwanted side effects, so it is important to tell your provider about any supplements that you are already taking. You can also learn more about specific dietary supplements on the National Institute of Health’s website.

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Chloe Plummer, MS, RD, LD, is a clinical dietitian with ProMedica Advocacy and Community Health, and her main passion is promoting childhood and adolescent health and wellness. She has a bachelor of science degree in Health and Sport Studies from Miami University and a master of science degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rush University. Read more of her columns.