Are Supplements Really Necessary?

Making Sense of Dietary Supplements

 What a confusing world when it comes to supplementation and our daily nutritional intake.  Our store shelves are lined with pills and powders promising the leanest, healthiest body if only we take the magic in the bottle.  Before running to the store ready to purchase items believed to provide goals of better health, leaning and toning, muscular build, endurance, or anything to improve our physique, read on to understand the purpose of supplements and if we really need them.  

Supplements vs. Whole Foods

Dietary Supplements
Are Dietary Supplements Right for Me?. Frank P wartenberg/Getty Images

 The word supplement means in addition to and not in place of nutrients obtained from eating healthy foods. In fact, if healthy foods are eaten on a regular basis without caloric restriction for weight loss, or skipping meals, the recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals can come from what we eat.  “According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, they make it clear that your nutritional needs should be met primarily through your diet.” Some people utilize vitamin and mineral supplementation as an insurance policy when they feel their nutritional intake is not consistently healthy but even in this instance is probably not necessary.  Consuming a variety of whole foods from lean proteins, good carbohydrates, and healthy fats provide the best assurance of getting all the nutrients and health benefits without the need or cost of supplementation. 

Supplement Facts

Supplements are FDA Regulated
Supplements are Regulated as Food. John Kuczala The Image Bank/Getty Images

 Common supplements include vitamins, minerals, and herbals and are available without a prescription.  Dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as foods, not as drugs and therefore are unable to claim that they treat, cure or prevent disease. Supplements can also have side effects especially prior to surgical procedures or in combination with other medications.  Many supplements and herbals have not been tested for side effects and therefore it is important to discuss implementing them with your physician to ensure proper health care management.  The truth behind supplementation is not enough clinical studies have been performed to gain accurate information of the effectiveness and good or bad side effects.  Because supplements are regulated as food and not drugs, they are not evaluated for quality or effects on the body. The bottom line is to know if a supplement is right for you, is it safe, and if it is even necessary.  

Who Needs Supplements?

Who Needs Supplements
Who Needs Supplements. WALTER ZERLA Cultura/Getty Images

 Who May Need Supplements?

Those people who are generally healthy consuming a variety of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats probably do not require supplements.  There are some situations recommended by the dietary guidelines where supplementation is beneficial.

  • Pregnancy: women who are trying to get pregnant, it is recommended that 400 micrograms of folic acid be taken per day in addition to eating foods rich in folate. Women who are pregnant are advised to take a prenatal vitamin supplement that includes iron.
  • Adults age 60 and over:  because B12 deficiency is more common in older people, doctors often recommend B12 supplements for their patients above age 60 or 65.
  • Adults age 65 and over: it is recommended that 800 IU of vitamin D daily be implemented to reduce fall risk.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: supplements may be beneficial for those people restricting calories and do not eat well, or who have removed some of the food groups from their daily intake.  Fish oil may be advised for people not consuming enough fatty fish per week.
  • Women who heavily menstruate can become iron deficient, so what they may need is iron supplements.
  • Medical conditions that impair the ability for nutrient absorption or surgical procedures on the intestinal tract that prevent the body from absorbing nutrients properly. If you have a chronic medical condition you should talk to your doctor about whether you ought to take dietary supplements, and which specific supplements might be helpful.

Supplements: Make an Educated Choice

Supplements, Be Educated
Research Supplements Before Using. Frank P wartenberg Picture Press/Getty Images

The good news is that supplements are not a requirement for good health and simply enjoying a variety of healthy foods will satisfy our daily nutrient allowances.  Implementing supplements is a personal choice, but it needs to be an educated one.  Beware of the false promises and claims from unregulated products that fall under the food and not drug category.  Before any decision is made to take a supplement, put in the research, have a discussion with your physician, and understand the pros and cons before diving into the unknown.    


National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements, DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW, 6/17/11

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

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