This month FoodTrients writer and nutritionist Ginger Hultin begins her four-part series on vitamins. Part 1 explores the pros and cons of taking supplements.
If you have questions about supplements, we’ve got answers to this complex and sometimes confusing topic. The world of supplements is regulated in unique ways that can very much affect your health and pocketbook, too. Some companies offer health promises about supplement products that sound enticing but understanding what’s evidence-based and what isn’t can be a huge challenge. FoodTrients® is here to explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of the supplement world, if any type of supplements may be right for you, and how to know. Let’s start with some big picture topics including whether or not you actually need supplements and how to tell.
Dietary supplements have become a huge business in the US and worldwide. The health claims can be tempting when they’re marketed to increase your metabolism or support weight loss, improve immune function, reduce inflammation, or even enhance athletic or sexual performance. What the science tells us about whether or not people need supplements and if they can really help you with your health goals is the foundation. Let’s sort it out.
Do I Really Need Supplements?
The truth is that most people can meet their nutrient needs through food when eating a balanced diet. Bodies are good at keeping themselves running properly when they have adequate nutrition support. The most common types of supplements people take are vitamin/mineral or nutrient-based because many people just aren’t eating the right types of food.
Research has shown that up to 90% of Americans aren’t eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables which are the richest sources of many vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. It may be tempting to use supplements to make up for this discrepancy, but the complex interactions between all the nutrients in food is difficult to replicate through dietary supplements. A food first approach is best for most people and looking at your diet is likely the best place to start.
There are, of course, times when supplements do make sense and certain populations may really need the extra boost such as:
Studies have shown that supplementation can be helpful to these populations to help prevent deficiencies. For instance, before and during pregnancy it is recommended to take a prenatal vitamin to help ensure adequate levels of folate and other essential nutrients. Older and younger people have increased needs for certain vitamins and minerals that protect bone health.
Some studies have shown that supplementation with a multivitamin can be a sort of safety net to help prevent deficiencies, and there is generally a low risk to taking a daily multivitamin. The nuance is that there is such a range of quality and nutrient profile in multis that it’s difficult to lump them all together and make a blanket recommendation. Asking your physician or registered dietitian for recommendations is a good place to start so they can personalize their guidance to your unique needs.
Besides the cost and the fact that supplements are likely not necessary for large portions of the population, there are other considerations regarding supplements. There can be dangers regarding toxicity, especially with fat soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E and K, which can build up in tissues at high volumes. Many herbs can be toxic if taken in large amounts and often interact with prescription drugs or other supplements. Certain minerals can affect the absorption of other minerals, for example large amounts of zinc can affect copper absorption. High dosing of vitamin C and magnesium can cause diarrhea and cramping.
There is a place in nutrition for dietary supplements, but it is important to work with someone knowledgeable to make sure you are getting high quality ingredients in targeted doses that will be beneficial for your specific circumstances. Relying on blood testing, working with a credentialed medical provider, and personalizing your supplements to your life-stage and unique needs and health goals is a critical part of the picture that many people often miss.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov. Marra MV, Bailey RL. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: micronutrient supplementation. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2018 Nov 1;118(11):2162-73