Dietary Supplements: Hype or Help for Good Health

handful of vitamins

Can dietary supplements really make you healthier? Some may be beneficial, but the key to vitamin and mineral success is eating a balanced diet.

There are many options for dietary supplements that may sound great, but there are also many questions: Which ones really work? Exactly how effective are they? Are they worth the money?

These are good questions for anybody who wants to live healthier. But before you start buying everything from Vitamin A to Zinc, remember there’s only one way to be sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs: Eat a variety of healthy foods.

Talk with your primary care provider about your personal needs. 

Food first!

“Registered Dietitians recommend food first because foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals and also dietary factors that are not found in a vitamin or mineral supplement,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., and Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Health and Human Development.

For example, she points out that foods provide many bioactive compounds and dietary fiber that typically aren’t found in supplements. And some supplements don’t allow for full absorption of vitamins.

“If taken on an empty stomach without any food, some of the fat-soluble vitamins will not be absorbed as well as they would if the supplement was consumed with a food that provides fat,” said Kris-Etherton, who also is a volunteer with the American Heart Association.

Consult with your health care provider

Dietary supplements may support good health, but are not replacements for a diet of nutrient-dense foods. Vitamin and mineral supplements should be only taken in addition to a healthy eating pattern, and only with the recommendation of your physician or dietitian.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) recognizes that for some people, dietary supplements are useful when it is not possible otherwise to meet the needs for one or more nutrients, for example, during specific life stages such as pregnancy. But, the DGAs also state that foods provide an array of nutrients that benefit health, so nutritional needs should be met primarily through foods.

“A [dietary] supplement will generally provide 100 percent of the daily recommended allowance for all vitamins and minerals,” Kris-Etherton said. “Therefore, many nutritionists will agree that a supplement is OK if nutrient needs are not being met by a healthy food-based diet.”

What’s Best for You

The American Heart Association recommends

  • An overall heart healthy dietary pattern. Limit excess calories, added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Include a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean sources of protein such as plant proteins, fish or seafood, low fat or non-fat diary, nuts and legumes.
  • Fish intake has been associated with decreased risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends that patients without documented heart disease eat a variety of fish – preferably omega-3-containing fish – at least twice a week. Examples of these types of fish include salmon, herring, trout, halibut, and albacore tuna.
  • Avoid antioxidant vitamin supplements such as A, C and E. Scientific evidence does not support their benefit to blood pressure, lower blood cholesterol or stop smoking. Rather, include many fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, vegetable oils, and other plant-based foods for sufficient vitamins and minerals with beneficial antioxidant properties.
  • Do not rely only on supplements. There isn’t sufficient data to suggest that healthy people benefit by taking certain vitamin or mineral supplements in excess of the daily recommended allowance.

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