7 Supplements You Probably Don’t Need
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7 Supplements You Probably Don’t Need

Hit the kitchen before you head to the pharmacy—you can get nearly all your essential vitamins and minerals from food.

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By Taylor Lupo

Nearly 68 percent of Americans take dietary supplements either regularly or on occasion. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates supplements somewhat once they hit the shelves, the products don’t have to be proven safe or effective before they’re sold.

And here’s another thing many of us may not realize: most people can get their necessary nutrients by eating a well-balanced diet, rich in fruits, veggies, healthy fats, whole grains and lean meats. “I would rather have people eating a good diet and getting their vitamins that way,” says Keith Roach, MD, chief medical officer of Sharecare.

Here's what you need to know about seven popular supplements, including who might need to take them—and who can probably skip them.

A word of advice about vitamins

2 / 9 A word of advice about vitamins

There are two large classes of vitamins: fat-soluble and water-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins—A, D, E and K—are stored in the body’s fatty tissue. It’s not likely you’ll consume too much of these vitamins through food, but overdoing supplements containing these could cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and liver damage. Water-soluble vitamins—like vitamins B and C—leave the body through urine, which means a little bit of excess intake is relatively harmless.

Before you take any supplements, talk to your doctor. Your care provider can help you figure out what’s appropriate to take. “When you're talking about doing something to prevent a problem, where there's nothing wrong, there ought to be a very high threshold of making sure that what you're going to do is safe and effective,” Dr. Roach says.

Multivitamins

3 / 9 Multivitamins

People who can’t get enough of their necessary nutrients through diet alone—such as pregnant or breastfeeding women, or older adults—might benefit from supplements. But you shouldn’t rely on a vitamin to supplement a poor diet.

On the other hand, healthy adults who eat a nutritious diet won’t likely benefit from taking a daily supplement, according to one Annals of Internal Medicine study. There is also insufficient evidence to suggest taking a multivitamin will help prevent chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer.

“I don't recommend multivitamins as a general rule,” Roach says. “For the simple reason that if someone has no symptoms, you can't make anyone feel better.”

Vitamin D

4 / 9 Vitamin D

How much vitamin D people need is hotly debated, with researchers estimating that anywhere from 6 percent to 94 percent of people are deficient, depending on the levels deemed necessary. We do know, however, that certain groups have a higher risk for low levels of vitamin D, including the elderly, people with darker skin and those who live in regions with fewer months of sunshine.

This vitamin is essential to the health and strength of your bones, and deficiency may be linked to the development of osteoporosis—a condition that causes bones to become brittle and weak. Nevertheless, taking vitamin D supplements isn't helpful for everyone. A meta-analysis of 81 studies published in October 2018 in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology found that neither high nor low doses of the essential nutrient help prevent falls and fractures or improve bone density.

Vitamin D supplements aren't likely to lower your risk of cancer or heart disease either, according to a November 2018 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers followed 25,871 adults older than 50-years of age for an average of 5 years. The volunteers were asked to take one of the following everyday during the course of the study:

  • 2,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D and 1 gram of fish oil
  • 2,000 IU of vitamin D and a placebo
  • 1 gram of fish oil and a placebo
  • A placebo

The review found no significant link between vitamin D supplements and lower rates of either cancer or heart-related events, such as heart attack or stroke.

Instead of taking supplements, most people should aim to reach the recommended 600 IU of vitamin D each day through diet and lifestyle adjustments, such as:

  • Eating fish like mackerel—a three-ounce serving contains more than 300 IUs
  • Drinking non-fat milk—one eight-ounce glass contains nearly 100 IUs
  • Soaking up the sun—Vitamin D is naturally produced by the body when triggered by sunlight. (Just don't overdo the sunbathing. Getting too much sun can increase your odds of skin cancer, particularly if you have risk factors like fair skin or a personal or family history of the disease.)

Doctors may recommend supplements to patients with low levels of vitamin D, but if you’re not deficient, adding these pills to your daily routine is probably not necessary.

Vitamin A

5 / 9 Vitamin A

This fat-soluble vitamin is important for eye health and the growth and formation of cells. Vitamin A comes in two forms—preformed and provitamin A. When provitamins, like beta-carotene, enter the body, they are converted into vitamin A. Beta-carotene is abundant in fruits and veggies like carrots, kale and cantaloupe. Preformed vitamin A, meanwhile, can be found in milk and eggs. Most Americans get enough vitamin A, making deficiencies rare.

On average, men need about 3,000 IUs and women need about 2,300 IUs of preformed vitamin A each day. Because your body must convert provitamins into vitamin A, some experts recommend getting anywhere from 10,000 to 83,000 IUs of provitamin A daily. Just one cup of chopped kale contains more than 10,000 IUs of beta-carotene, so you can likely reach these daily goals through diet.

If you consume too much preformed vitamin A from supplements—which is pretty easy to do—you might experience dizziness, skin irritation or pain in joints and bones. You’re probably better off tossing together a colorful salad before tossing back a pill.

Vitamin E

6 / 9 Vitamin E

Not many Americans are deficient in vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin that protects cells from damage and provides support for your immune system. Vitamin E is abundant in foods like avocado, almonds and spinach, making supplements unnecessary for most. Healthy adults need about 15 milligrams of the nutrient each day.

Need some easy ways to get vitamin E in your diet?

  • Snack on a handful of almonds—a one ounce serving contains more than 7 milligrams.
  • Toss together a big salad—one bunch of spinach contains fewer than 80 calories and almost 7 milligrams of vitamin E.

People who have conditions that prevent proper digestion or absorption of fat—like Crohn’s disease—might benefit from taking vitamin E supplements. Deficiencies of this vitamin can cause nerve and muscle damage and trigger vision problems. Symptoms of vitamin E deficiency include altered or diminished reflexes and muscle weakness.

But before you pop a pill, talk to your healthcare provider—overdoing these supplements could cause other issues, like hemorrhaging.

Vitamin B12

7 / 9 Vitamin B12

Your body needs this B vitamin for several reasons, including proper formation of DNA and blood cells. This nutrient is only naturally present in animal products and byproducts, like meat, milk and yogurt, or fortified foods like breakfast cereals. Most adults should get about 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient daily.

Older adults and people who eliminate animal products from their diet, like vegans, are at a higher risk of B12 deficiency. These shortages can be hard to track, developing slowly or progressing rapidly, and they can cause symptoms like hand and foot numbness, jaundice and fatigue. What’s more, these symptoms are often overlooked or mistaken for other conditions. Severe deficiencies of B12 may cause depression, memory loss, incontinence and more.

“If you're a vegan, you need to be taking supplemental vitamin B12, because you can't get vitamin B12 in a vegan diet,” Roach says.

Vitamin C

8 / 9 Vitamin C

Fruits and veggies, like green bell peppers, oranges and kiwi are loaded with vitamin C, which is good for the growth and repair of tissue, collagen production and wound healing. People who get the recommended servings of fruit and veggies per day should have no trouble getting enough vitamin C. Deficiency isn’t common in developed countries, like the U.S., but can still occur in people who have limited access to a variety of foods.

How much vitamin C does your body need per day? It depends on your sex and stage of life:

  • Men: 90 milligrams
  • Women: 75 milligrams
  • ​Pregnant women: 85 milligrams
  • Breastfeeding women: 120 milligrams

If you’re deficient in vitamin C, add more greens to your favorite meals—one cup of chopped broccoli contains 81 milligrams. Vitamin C is water-soluble, so a little extra should safely find its way out of your body.

Omega-3 fatty acids

9 / 9 Omega-3 fatty acids

That fishy smell might not be the only reason to leave omega-3 supplements on the pharmacy shelf. For more than a decade, experts have debated the pills' efficacy for preventing heart disease. A 2018 meta-analysis of 10 clinical trials involving 77,917 people found no link between consumption of fish oil pills and a lower risk of heart disease or other heart-related events¾even for people with prior heart conditions.

These supplements won't likely help protect against cancer either, according to the same November 2018 New England Journal of Medicine study that analyzed possible health benefits of taking vitamin D supplements. Researchers randomly assigned 25,871 men aged 50 and older and women aged 55 and older to take either 1 gram of fish oil daily or  a placebo pill.

During a median follow up period of five years, there were no statistically significant differences between the supplement group and the placebo group. The researchers identified 386 cardiac events among those taking fish oil compared to 419 among those taking the placebo. Meanwhile, cancer was diagnosed in 820 of those taking fish oil supplements and 797 people in the placebo group. The team concluded that fish oil was not helpful in reducing adults’ overall risk for cancer or heart-related events.

The study did suggest however that fish oil supplements are linked to a lower risk for heart attack, particularly among those who are black or do not eat much fish. But the jury is still out. More research is needed to confirm this possible association.

In most cases, adults can get enough omega-3 fatty acid from the food they eat. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that women get 1.1 grams each day while men are advised to get 1.6 grams daily. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should get between 1.3 and 1.4 grams per day.

Canola oil, salmon, herring, mackerel, chia seeds and walnuts are all high in omega-3s. If you're looking to boost your fatty acid intake, top chia pudding—a combination of 2 tablespoons chia seeds and a ½ cup almond milk—with chopped walnuts.