Understand the risks and benefits before taking supplements

Chloe Plummer, MS, RD, LD, Clinical Dietitian, ProMedica

        Nowadays, everyone seems to be taking some type of supplement for some reason or another – but do you actually need them? Before adding any type of dietary supplement to your routine, it’s important to understand the risks and benefits.
        The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines dietary supplements as products taken by mouth that include a “dietary ingredient.” This could be anything from vitamins, to minerals, herbs, amino acids or other substances that are meant to supplement what you eat.
        It’s important to note that the best way to get all the nutrients that our bodies need is through food. Most people who consume a balanced diet with a variety of foods from each food group don’t need to take supplements.
        Who may need a supplement?
        Individuals who have increased nutrient needs or difficulty meeting nutrient needs may benefit from taking supplements. This may include people who have a nutrient deficiency that cannot be met by food alone, pregnant women, older adults or individuals who avoid major groups of food due to an allergy, intolerance or dietary preference.
        For example, pregnant women are often advised to take a prenatal vitamin to help meet their increased needs for nutrients such as iron and folic acid during pregnancy. Individuals who follow a vegan diet may need a vitamin B12 supplement since the major sources of B12 in the diet are animal products.
        How to take supplements safely
        Even though supplements are regulated by the FDA, they are regulated differently than food and prescription medications. In most cases, the FDA is only able to review the safety of dietary supplements once they are already on the market. Some supplements have been found to include a different amount of the dietary ingredient than is listed on the label, and some may even contain contaminants.
        Follow these guidelines to make sure that you are choosing a quality supplement:
        • Look for supplements that have been evaluated and reviewed by a separate organization such as U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), ConsumerLab, or NSF International. The supplement will have the organization’s seal on the label, which means the product has been tested and meets manufacturing standards, contains the ingredients on the label and does not include contaminants that may be harmful.
        • Take supplements in recommended doses. Too much of certain vitamins and minerals can be harmful. Many vitamins and minerals have a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL), which is the highest dose you should safely take to avoid side effects or harm.
        • Check the Daily Value (DV). The DV that you see on a supplement or food label usually lists the amount recommended per day for an average adult, but may also state the DV for infants, children or pregnant and lactating women. The DV may not be the amount that you specifically need, based on your age and sex. For more individualized recommendations, visit the USDA’s website and talk with your doctor or dietitian. With supplements, try to avoid high doses of any one nutrient or doses that are well above 100% of the DV, unless this has been recommended by your doctor or dietitian. Remember, more is not always better when it comes to supplements.
        Supplements should not take the place of a healthy diet, but they can sometimes help your body get the nutrients that it needs. If you are thinking about starting a supplement, make sure that you have a reason to do so and that there is research to support the supplement’s claims. Talk to your primary care provider or dietitian to determine if taking a supplement would be beneficial to you.


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