What facts do I need to keep in mind when choosing dietary supplements?

Millions of Americans take dietary supplements each day. Many of my patients tell me that taking supplements helps them feel better about their “not-so-healthy” diets and eating habits. I remind people that most people do not need dietary supplements, and the best way to obtain these valuable nutrients is from whole foods. I urge people to increase their intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains; these foods contain many of the vitamins that are important for our health. However, there are a few situations where you may need a vitamin/mineral supplement: you are an older adult (>50 yrs), you are on a restrictive diet or have had gastric bypass surgery, you are pregnant or of child bearing age, you are a vegetarian or you have a medical condition that may limit your food choices. If one of these situations applies to you, then I recommend a good multi-vitamin.

Keep in mind that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates finished dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering “conventional” foods and drug products. In the case of supplements, the manufacturer of the supplement is responsible for making sure a supplement is safe before it is marketed. So, I remind patients that they may need to question the safety and purity of the supplement in question.

If you are still interested in taking a supplement I recommend going to a reputable drug store and surveying the options. It is easy to get swayed by the some of the manufacturer marketing tactics such as “Multi-vitamin for bone, breast, and heart health” or “Multi-vitamin for healthy hair, skin and nails” or “Multi-vitamin to help boost immunity and increase energy”. You may find you can skip some of those expensive options and simply choose a basic multi-vitamin. When choosing the right supplement for you, first figure out what nutrients that you may not be getting in your diet. If you are a vegetarian, you may need a supplement with adequate vitamin B12. Older adults and women need to consume extra calcium and vitamin D so make sure the supplement contains adequate amounts of these. Women of childbearing age would need a supplement rich in iron and folic acid.

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