Supplement use is on the rise, up to 50% of the US population using is supplements (up from 42% in 1994). More people are taking them, but are the right people taking them and should you be taking supplements? The same report stated that only 34% of women ages 20-39 are taking folic acid supplements, which is a nutrient critical to neural tube formation in a fetus. Calcium use in women 60 an older increased, which is positive and Vitamin D, which has been the vitamin du jour, is also on the rise.
What supplements, if any, do you need?
The only way to really know if you need a supplement is to visit a registered dietitian who will analyze your diet and look for nutrient gaps. Even then, you might not need a supplement, you might just need to eat more of a certain food or food group. But I know the American way is to just pop a pill – so much easier! But is that really the best thing for you? First of all, the nutrients that are found in real foods are, for the most part, better for you. The reason being that it is so hard to study individual nutrients scientists really don’t know if one single nutrient in a food is responsible for health benefits or if it is that nutrient working in conjunction with the other nutrients in that food that make it so good for us. For example, people love to take omega-3 supplements, me included, but is it just omega-3 alone that has health benefits or is it the omega-3 consumed when you eat certain fish that’s beneficial? Hard to know.
My general response to the question, “Should I be taking a supplement?” is usually, “Not if you eat a generally healthy diet and a wide variety of foods including dairy products, fruits and vegetables, meats and beans and whole grains.” If you eat foods like this on a daily basis then you probably don’t need a supplement. But there are always exceptions to the rule. If a patient of mine has elevated cholesterol that has not been lowered through diet and exercise I recommend supplements of plant stanols (such as Benecol). Likewise, a patient with high triglycerides may benefit from a specific dose of omega-3 fatty acids. If I have a patient who cannot/will not eat dairy products I will recommend a calcium with Vitamin D supplement because I know it would take a lot of dark leafy greens to equal their daily requirements of calcium. I often recommend Vitamin D, especially during the winter months, to my overweight patients. All women of childbearing age should be taking a folic acid supplement, especially those who are actively trying to conceive. Although folic acid needs can be met through food, we actually recommend the synthetic version here. If I have a patient that needs a restricted diet or is self-restricting then I will also recommend a multivitamin with minerals. I take omega-3 occasionally just for the fun of it. I know it won’t hurt me and it actually might help, but I’m not religious about it because I eat high omega-3 fish on a weekly basis. I also take a Vitamin D supplement, but no other single nutrients and I take a multivitamin with minerals when I remember. Of course, I’m a dietitian, I eat pretty healthy.
The answer for you is to always try to get your nutrients from food first and supplements second. If you have a specific condition that requires supplements then by all means take them (after checking with your doctor). If you’re generally healthy and eat a varied diet you probably don’t need supplements. If there are certain foods or food groups that you avoid then you might want to consider supplementing those missing nutrients. No one food or nutrient is going to make you live to 100, so don’t go spending your life savings on supplements. Also, be especially careful when taking herbal supplements as they can react with each other and interact with medications. Always tell your doctor all the supplements you are taking.