Hit the kitchen before you head to the pharmacy—some supplements may not be so healthy.
By Taylor Lupo
Nearly 68 percent of Americans take dietary supplements either regularly or on occasion. Although the US 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.
Most people can get their necessary nutrients by eating a well-balanced diet made up of 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.
Learn more about supplements, including which to take and which to skip.
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 could cause headache, nausea, dizziness liver damage and more. Water-soluble vitamins—like vitamins B and C—leave the body through urine, making a little excess harmless.
Before you take any supplements, talk to your doctor. They 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.
People who can’t get enough of the necessary nutrients through diet alone—like 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 show that taking a multivitamin will help prevent chronic conditions like heart disease and cancer.
“I don't recommend multivitamins as a general rule,” Dr. Roach says. “Simply because, if someone has no symptoms, you can't make anyone feel better.”
In fact, according to some estimates, as many as 75 percent of Americans are low in vitamin D making it one of the most common vitamin deficiency in America. People who might be at risk for low vitamin D include the elderly, people with darker skin or those who live in regions with fewer months of sunshine.
Vitamin D is essential to the health and strength of your bones. Vitamin D deficiency may be linked to the development of osteoporosis—a condition that causes bones to become brittle and weak.
The recommended dietary allowance for most adults is 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D each day. You can get vitamin D through:
This fat-soluble vitamin is important for eye health as well as 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, and preformed vitamin A can be found in milk and eggs. Most Americans get enough vitamin A, making deficiencies rare.
On average, men need about 3,000 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 between10,000 and 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.
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. Snack on a handful of almonds—a one ounce serving contains more than 7 milligrams. Or 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.
Before you pop a pill, talk to your healthcare provider—overdoing these supplements could cause other issues, like hemorrhaging.
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.
People who eliminate animal products from their diet, like vegans, and older adults, are at a higher risk of B12 deficiency. Severe deficiencies may cause depression, memory loss, incontinence and more. Vitamin B12 deficiencies can be tricky. They can develop slowly or progress rapidly, and symptoms—hand and foot numbness, jaundice and fatigue—are often overlooked or mistaken for other conditions.
“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.
Fruits and veggies, like green bell peppers, oranges and kiwi, are loaded with vitamin C—good for the growth and repair of tissue, collagen production and wound healing. People who get the recommended 7 servings of fruit and veggies per day should have no trouble getting enough vitamin C. Vitamin C deficiency isn’t common in developed countries, like the United States, but can still occur in people who have limited access to a variety of foods.
So, how much vitamin C does your body need? It depends:
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.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates vitamin supplements and provides recommended daily amount information. The FDA says that we should pay attention when considering vitamin supplements, because ...frequently many different vitamins and minerals are combined into one product. More