Making Sense of Supplements: Health or Hype?

Do you take a multivitamin or dietary supplement? If so, you are not alone. In 2016, 71 percent of adults (more than 170 million) did, especially those age 55 and older.

A well-balanced, healthy diet may provide the full complement of necessary vitamins, minerals and other nutrients your body needs. When your diet falls short, supplements can fill the void. However, you should be aware that there are downsides and risks with supplements.

Overview of Supplements
There are four general categories of supplements: vitamins, minerals, herbs/botanicals and sports nutrition aids. Each contain one or more dietary ingredients, and they come in a variety of forms, such as pills, powders and energy bars. The most common reasons people give for taking supplements is for overall health and wellness and increased energy.

The most common supplement is a multivitamin. Most multivitamins contain the age and gender recommended dietary allowance of nutrients needed to meet the requirements of most healthy people.


Benefits of Supplements
Supplements can help some people get the right amounts of essential nutrients when they are deficient or if they have unusual demands on their health. For example, women take folic acid (a type of B vitamin) when pregnant because folic acid deficiencies can cause birth defects in a developing baby’s spine or brain. People who have iron-deficiency anemia (from internal bleeding or heavy menstrual flow, for example) may need iron supplements to bring their iron levels up to normal levels.

One area where supplements are of value is in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness. Studies have shown that daily high doses of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, zinc and copper can help slow the progression of AMD.


Downsides and Risks of Supplements
Even though we can’t live without certain nutrients, more is not necessarily better. You can get too much of a nutrient if you’re getting enough in your diet and taking a supplement.

Supplements can also interfere with the effectiveness of medications you may take. When you take vitamin K supplements along with blood-thinning medications, for example, the vitamin K may lower the drug’s effectiveness. Garlic may prolong bleeding, so if you’re taking garlic supplements, your doctor may ask you to stop taking it a week or more before you have scheduled surgery. Iron is a leading cause of poisoning in young children.


Three Groups of People Who Might Need a Supplement

  • Women who are pregnant or could become pregnant. A supplement ensures that you get the folic acid you need daily to lower the risk of certain birth defects.
  • Postmenopausal women. Many women do not get enough calcium and vitamin D from the foods they eat. Calcium and vitamin D, along with weight-bearing exercise, help prevent osteoporosis. You may also need to take a supplement with vitamin B12.
  • Vegetarians. You can get some vitamins from animal products more easily than from plant sources. For example, vitamin B12 is found in many animal products, including eggs and dairy, but it is not found in plants. Also, vegans especially may not get enough of vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B12, and D from food alone.


Should You Take Supplements?
You should be able to meet all your nutritional requirements through a healthy, well-rounded diet. Ask your doctor whether supplements make sense for you, based on your unique health needs. Pregnant and nursing women, and people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, should be particularly cautious about using supplements. Always tell your doctor about any supplements you take.


Who Takes Supplements?

  • 71% of U.S. adults take a supplement
  • 74% take a multivitamin
  • 53% of adults 55 and over take a supplement


Aim to get nutrients from the food you eat. Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements, especially if you are pregnant, nursing or have a chronic health condition, such as diabetes.

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