Go to any convenience store and you’ll find rows upon rows of dietary supplements. That’s because vitamin and mineral use has skyrocketed over the past decade as the nation eats, drinks and exercises to better health.
More than 75 percent of adults in the United States currently take health supplements, according to a survey from the Council of Responsible Nutrition (CRN). It found 87 percent trust the safety, quality, and effectiveness of dietary supplements.
However, up until recently, there has been conflicting information about what supplements to take and what kind of health benefits most dietary supplements provide, if any. It’s important to know which can benefit your health and which may be harmful.
Here are 5 Things You Need to Know About Dietary Supplements
Supplements vs. Whole Foods:
Supplements aren’t intended to replace food. They can’t replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Whole foods offer three main benefits over dietary supplements:
- Greater nutrition. Whole foods are complex, containing a variety of the micronutrients your body needs.
- Essential fiber. Whole foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, provide dietary fiber. Dietary fiber can help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, stroke, and heart disease. It can also help with digestive regularity.
- Protective substances. Many whole foods contain chemicals that promote health, such as antioxidants — substances that slow down a natural process leading to cell and tissue damage. (WebMD, 2020)
Supplements are Available in Various Forms:
Whether in pill, powder, or liquid form, the goal of dietary supplements is often the same: to supplement your diet to get enough nutrients and enhance health.
Supplements contain at least one dietary ingredient, such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, or enzymes. Some of the most popular supplements come in a multivitamin, which can help you avoid taking a dozen pills each day, but they can also be purchased individually.
The simplest common denominator? They’re labeled as dietary supplements. Some common dietary or herbal supplements include:
- Fish oil
- Vitamin D
- St. John’s wort
- Green tea
Only a few supplements are effective, while others are not. There is a reason supplements are so popular: sometimes, they work! Common supplements that may benefit your health include:
- Vitamin B12, which can help keep nerve and blood cells healthy, make DNA and prevent anemia
- Folic acid, which can reduce birth defects when taken by pregnant women
- Vitamin D, which can strengthen bones
- Calcium, which can promote bone health
- Vitamins C and E, which can prevent cell damage
- Fish oil, which can support heart health
- Vitamin A, which can slow down vision loss from age-related macular degeneration
- Zinc, which can promote skin health and slow down vision loss from age-related macular degeneration
- Melatonin, which can help you sleep and counteract jet lag
Despite the amount of research that’s been done on supplements (since 1999, the National Institutes of Health has spent more than $2.4 billion studying vitamins and minerals), scientific evidence isn’t completely clear (NY Times, 2020).
Keep in mind: Most studies suggest that multivitamins won’t make you live longer, slow cognitive decline, or lower your chances of disease, such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
Supplements Aren’t Always Safe
In most cases, multivitamins aren’t likely to pose any health risks. Still, it’s important to be cautious when you put anything in your body. It’s important to know the risks of too much of a good thing and harmful interactions. If you have questions, it is best to check with your primary care physician or a nutritionist.
You might be surprised to know that federal regulations for dietary supplements are less strict than prescription drugs. Some supplements may contain ingredients not listed on the label, and these ingredients can be unsafe. Certain products are marketed as dietary supplements and actually contain prescription drugs within them — drugs that are not allowed in dietary supplements. Be wary of supplements not manufactured in the United States.
Some supplements that may pose risks include:
- Vitamin K, which can reduce the effectiveness of blood thinners
- Gingko, which can increase blood thinning
- St. John’s Wort, which can make some drugs, such as antidepressants and birth control, less effective
- Herbal supplements comfrey and kava, which can damage your liver
- Beta-carotene and vitamin A, which can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers
Supplement Intake Always Requires a Healthcare Opinion
The most important thing to remember is to be smart when choosing a supplement. Your first step should be discussing your options with your healthcare provider since a supplement’s effectiveness and safety may depend on your individual situation and health.
On top of that, keep these simple tips in mind as you choose a supplement:
- Take supplements as directed according to the label and your healthcare provider’s instructions.
- Read the label, including ingredients, drug interactions, and percent daily value (% DV).
- Be wary of extreme claims, such as “completely safe” or “works better than (insert prescription drug).”
- Remember that the term “natural” doesn’t necessarily equal “safe.”
- Keep supplements stored properly and away from children.
Stay Healthy, Stay Safe
Nothing beats the nutrient power of a healthy diet of real food. No matter what your goal is when taking supplements, one thing is certain: They aren’t a replacement for a nutrient-dense, healthy diet. Supplements should never be used in place of food. Don’t underestimate what a nutrient-packed salad can do for you compared to a pill made in a factory. Be wary of weight-loss related claims and supplements. If it sounds too good to be true, it most likely has a catch. Always check with your primary care physician before investing in supplements that may not do what the package promises, especially if you are pregnant or nursing. We want you to be safe and your health depends on healthy, informed choices.
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). What You Need to Know about Dietary Supplements. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/what-you-need-know-about-dietary-supplements
Wolfram, R. (n.d.). Vitamins Minerals and Supplements Do You Need to Take Them. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/dietary-supplements/vitamins-minerals-and-supplements-do-you-need-to-take-them
Szabo, L., & News, K. (2018, April 03). Older Americans Are ‘Hooked’ on Vitamins. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/03/well/older-americans-vitamins-dietary-supplements.html
Dunn, N. (2018, April 27). Council Post: What Businesses Can Learn From The Health And Wellness Boom. Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeslacouncil/2018/04/27/what-businesses-can-learn-from-the-health-and-wellness-boom/