In the past few decades, Americans have become much more aware of their overall health, and the factors that can improve or worsen it. With this, countless studies have been conducted to investigate the various ways one can improve their health. This phenomenon has led to tons of medical breakthroughs, forever improving the lives of humans across the globe. However, it has also led to things like fad diets and fad products, that can either do nothing for us, or make us worse off than we were before we tried them.
So which category do vitamin supplements fall under? Well, technically both. It depends on the supplement being taken and the current nutrient needs of the person taking it.
When Should Someone Be Taking a Supplement?
There are definitely times in life when taking a supplement is the best option for getting all the nutrients you need. But it’s important to differentiate between these times and the times when we probably don’t need to be taking one.
One of the most prevalent times in life when a vitamin supplement is recommended is during pregnancy. Since this is a time of extreme growth in the woman’s and the baby’s body, there are severely increased nutrient needs. These needs must be met to ensure that the baby is developing properly and that the mother’s body is able to sustain the pregnancy. Specific nutrients of concern are folic acid and iron. Though it is technically possible to consume all the needed nutrients from foods during pregnancy, it is said to be very difficult because of the increased nutrient demand. Many mothers also report being too nauseous during the early stages of pregnancy to eat enough of the nutrient-dense foods required to do this. It is also recommended that women who may become pregnant consider taking a dietary supplement as well, so that their bodies are prepared to sustain a pregnancy.
Another situation in which you should consider taking a vitamin supplement is if you have a dietary restriction of some kind. Vegetarians and vegans can sometimes be at risk for Vitamin B-12 deficiency, since our primary source of this is meat. While there are still other foods that contain B-12, it may be difficult to get the amount our bodies need without eating meat. In this case, your doctor or dietitian may recommend that you take a supplement to prevent deficiency.
Lactose intolerance is another example of a dietary restriction that may require supplements. Specific nutrients of concern in this situation are calcium and Vitamin D, since these are mainly obtained from dairy products. Just as with Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D and calcium can be found in other foods that do not contain lactose. However, it may be difficult for a person with lactose-intolerance to get the recommended amount. This is another case in which a doctor or dietitian may recommend a dietary supplement to prevent nutrient deficiency.
As we age, our bodies usually require fewer calories. However, we still need roughly the same amount of vitamins and minerals to function. For this reason, it can be challenging for older adults to get all the nutrients they need. In addition to this, absorption of certain nutrients tend to decrease as we get older. Specific nutrients of concern are Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D, and calcium. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that older adults consider dietary supplements, specifically vitamin B-12 and vitamin D.
Medical Conditions or Medications Affecting Absorption
Some medical conditions and certain medications can adversely affect nutrient absorption. This is another instance in which it’s probably best to take a supplement. Extra nutrient intake will ensure that your body is supplied with enough of the nutrients it needs and can properly absorb them. In this case, a doctor or dietitian should be the one to help you choose which ones to take that are best for you individual situation.
When Is a Supplement Probably Not Necessary?
If you are generally a healthy person who eats a balanced diet that looks similar to the MyPlate recommendations, then you really don’t need to be taking dietary supplements. (You’re more likely getting all the nutrients you need from food!) In fact, taking supplements may actually do you more harm than good. Too much of one vitamin or mineral can sometimes inhibit the absorption or storage of others. For instance, if someone’s zinc intake is too high, it will likely deplete the body’s copper stores, and sometimes also alter iron function. Likewise, excessive calcium intake has been associated with interference of iron and zinc absorption. The moral of the story is that you are more likely to get a healthy amount of nutrients from food, rather than from a vitamin supplement. When you take supplements, you risk potential of nutrient toxicity, which is practically impossible when only getting nutrients from food.
If you are generally a healthy person, but you don’t necessarily have the best diet, there are still other options to consider before taking a supplement. Look at the the MyPlate recommendations and see what areas you can adjust your diet and lifestyle. You are better off getting your nutrients from foods, if you have the ability to. Only after you’ve exhausted all of your food options should you consider taking a supplement.
Other Things To Consider
Whether you take supplements or not, it’s important to educate yourself about regulations of these products. Though they are technically regulated by the FDA, supplements are technically considered to be “food” rather than “drugs.” Therefore, their quality and effects on the body are not assessed by the FDA. Only the supplement company themselves are responsible for evaluating this, which can cause obvious problems. Always do research and make sure you are aware of the effects of your supplements, beyond those that are listed on the bottle.
More than 50% of Americans take dietary supplements. But many of them don’t need to be. It’s important to always discuss supplementation with your doctor and/or dietitian. Getting an expert opinion can be really helpful and eye-opening. If you’re on the fence, I encourage you to try the “food first” policy.