Americans spend billions of dollars on vitamins and dietary supplements annually, but are they good for you? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that your nutrition needs should be met primarily through a well-balanced diet. Some people, however, may need to take a supplement in order to get nutrients they may otherwise lack if they do not follow a healthy diet. Before you start to take a dietary supplement, get the facts on what they will and won’t do for your health.
Dietary supplements aren’t intended to be a substitute for healthy food. They cannot replicate the benefits and variety of nutrients found in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. Whole foods are complex and contain a multitude of micronutrients your body needs, along with dietary fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. If you eat a well-balanced diet, chances are that a dietary supplement may not be worth the added expense. Unlike supplements, a balanced diet contains the appropriate balance of nutrients that can help to prevent certain diseases and promote a healthy weight. Dietary supplements are not drugs, and are not intended to treat, prevent, or cure diseases.
Nutritional supplements might be helpful if you don’t eat a balanced diet, are a vegetarian or vegan, are pregnant or may become pregnant, or if you are over the age of 50. If you have a restrictive diet that eliminates entire food groups, it is likely that you are not receiving sufficient nutrients in your diet. Certain instances when a supplement is likely beneficial include:
- Women who may become pregnant should get 400 micrograms per day of folic acid in order to prevent neural tube defects.
- Women who are pregnant should take a prenatal vitamin that contains iron.
- Adults age 65 or older should take 800 International Units of Vitamin D daily to promote healthy bones and to prevent falls.
- Adults age 50 and older may need to take a vitamin B-12 supplement.
If you think you may benefit from a dietary supplement, talk to your doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist. Remember that there are risks associated with taking dietary supplements. Some supplements and herbals can be harmful if taken with certain prescription medications. Be sure to check the label and avoid taking mega-doses, which can cause dangerous side effects. Fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K are stored in your fat and liver cells, and excessive amounts can accumulate and have toxic effects. Remember that just because something is labeled “natural,” doesn’t mean that it is always safe. Before taking a dietary supplement, ask your healthcare provider these questions:
- What are the potential health benefits of taking this supplement?
- Are there any risk associated with taking this supplement?
- What is the appropriate dose to take?
- How often, when and how long should I take this?
The bottom line is that if you are eating a balanced diet, you probably do not need to take a dietary supplement. If you think that your diet is lacking, a daily multivitamin can assure that you are getting the essential vitamins and minerals you need. If you are concerned about a specific nutrient, be sure to talk with your doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist before taking a specific dietary supplement. Your healthcare provider can help you to make an informed decision about which supplements may be appropriate for you.