With so many different supplement options at the stores do you wonder if you should be taking supplements? Are they necessary? Are supplements good for you? Let’s look at this topic closer. I will provide you with information that will help you decide if supplements may be helpful for you or not.
Note: The guidelines in this post are generalized. You may have unique or different needs for nutrition supplementation. Always check with your doctor or dietitian for individualized supplement recommendations.
What is a Supplement?
A supplement is a product that adds nutritional value to your diet. A supplement can be a vitamin, mineral, herbal supplement, botanical supplement, amino acid (protein) supplement, etc.
Supplements can be really helpful. Not everyone needs supplements but certain groups of people benefit from dietary supplementation. Some examples of people that typically need dietary supplements include those with a known nutrient deficiency, pregnant women, and children who are picky eaters.
Supplement Use in America
Americans spend about $12.8 billion on supplements annually.1 56.7% of people age 20 or older used supplements from 2017-2018. Women tend to use supplements more than men, and supplement use increases with age.
The 3 most common supplements used include a multivitamin/mineral supplement, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.2
How Much do You Really Need?
In general, you can figure out how much of a nutrient you need by looking up the DRI (dietary reference intake). Here is a useful calculator you can use to figure out your general needs: DRI calculator. After you input in your age, height, weight, gender, activity level and whether or not you are pregnant, it will tell you your estimated nutrient needs.
This does not take into account unique medical needs. DRIs are based on the general healthy population.
Keep in mind that you likely already receive a good portion, if not all of your nutrient needs, from your diet. To figure out how much of each nutrient you already consume most days, you will need to track your food intake and compare the outcomes to your DRIs. If there are any consistent gaps you may consider closing that gap with a supplement. You can also work with a dietitian to help you figure this out as needed.
Navigating DRIs may seem confusing with all of the different terms used. Here is a brief summary of the different values:
- RDA (recommended dietary allowance)- The average intake required to meet the needs for 97-98% of the population
- EAR (Estimated Average Requirement)- This is the estimated amount of a nutrient needed to meet 50% of population’s needs
- AI (adequate intake)- When there is not enough data to produce RDA, AI is what is assumed to be adequate
- UL (tolerable upper intake level)- The maximum amount of a nutrient that can be taken daily without causing negative health effects
When Supplements are Not a Good Idea
Supplements can interact with medications or even compete for absorption
Always check with your doctor or pharmacist if it is safe to take the supplements you are using with the medications you are taking.
For a classic example, for those taking coumadin/warfarin (a blood thinner), vitamin E supplementation may hinder the effectiveness of this medication. On the other hand, taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements may make increase the effects of coumadin/warfarin.
Additionally, taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements may not be safe to take if you are scheduled for a surgery.
Always inform your health care providers about dietary supplements you are taking; something that may seem completely harmless may in fact interact with, or affect your other medical needs.
Potential for Harm
Taking large amounts of supplements can be dangerous. Dietary supplements often provide more than 100% of the DRI for nutrients. If you see that this is true for the supplements you are taking, make sure they do not exceed the UL (upper limit) for that nutrient.
May not be What They Seem
Dietary supplements are not FDA regulated like prescription medications are. This means that the FDA does not approve of supplement safety, or if they do what they claim to do. Additionally, the FDA does not check that dietary supplements contain the exact ingredients that they are labeled to have. The companies that make the supplements are responsible for all of this information.
Unfortunately, researchers have found that some supplements do not even contain the ingredient that the consumer is purchasing it for. There are also problems with supplements containing contaminants such as prescription medications, heavy metals and microbial contaminants.3
Like most things, supplements have a cost. There is a reason supplements are often pushed by “health coaches” and “nutrition experts.” People who sell supplements make money from selling you something you may not even need. Generally, if someone is selling expensive “cure all” supplements, I do not trust them. I do believe supplements can have an important part in our self care, but carefully check if they are safe and if you will actually benefit from using them.
Finding a Good Source For Supplements
Fortunately, some companies that make supplements opt to have their supplement lab tested by a third party. There are several labels you can look for on your supplements to see if they have been lab tested and meet standards set by the third party:
- ConsumerLab.com– This company independently tests supplements and creates reports. They do require paid membership to see the results. Products that have been tested by ConsumerLab.com and that meet the company’s standards will have the logo on it. You see the logo here.
- NSF– this company tests and certifies that standards are met for dietary supplements too. They also provide a mark that companies can use on their label to show that they meet this third party’s standards. You can see what their mark looks like here. Click here to search for NSF certified supplements.
- UL– This company also tests supplements and provides a UL logo on supplements that meet standards. You can read more about them here.
- US Pharmacopeia– This not for profit company tests supplements as well. You can see what their USP logo looks like on supplement bottles here. Click here to see a list of the supplements verified by them.
When in Doubt, Ask
If you aren’t sure if you need a supplement, or how much to take, talk to your health care provider. And always make sure your doctor knows what supplements you are taking as supplements can interact with medications or medical procedures. Likewise, pharmacists can help you figure out if there are any potential interactions between medications and dietary supplements you want to take.
- Americans Spend $30 Billion a year out-of-pocket on Complementary Approaches https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/research-results/americans-spend-30-billion-a-year-outofpocket-on-complementary-health-approaches
- Dietary Supplement Use Among Adults: United States, 2017-2018 https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db399.htm#section_1
- Dietary Supplements Pose Real Dangers to Patients. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1060028019900504