Nutrition Articles

Get Street-Wise About Supplements

Tips to Becoming Supplement Savvy

Going to the drug store lately can feel a little like a Saturday morning trip to the candy shop, with dozens and dozens of colorful vitamin and mineral supplements to choose from! Can’t you just sample a little bit of everything?

If you’re considering a supplement, heed some familiar advice—choose wisely and carefully. Filling up on this type of "candy" can do more harm than good.

Vitamin and mineral supplements are so popular that you can buy them just about anywhere—the drug store, grocery store, mall, the internet, and through home-based distributors. But do you really need them? Will they improve your health? Are they safe? How can you avoid being ripped off?

Food Is Still Best
Before you clear a medicine cabinet shelf to stock up on supplements, remember this truth: Food is still the #1 option for getting the nutrients you need for healthy living. A balanced multivitamin supplement is second best and is usually safe. Beyond that, individual nutrient supplements should only be chosen in special cases.

It is true that vitamins and minerals are essential in regulating various body activities. These nutrients do not function alone but work together with other nutrients. The best source of vitamins and minerals is food. Food provides the complete package. A balanced diet already contains the correct nutrients in just the right amounts. Individual foods also provide hundreds of other substances such as phytochemicals, zoochemicals, and antioxidants that help to prevent disease and boost the immune system.

True, it can be frustrating and possibly frightening to not know if you’re getting enough of a certain nutrient. That’s where the SparkPeople Nutrition Tracker can help. Before you go supplement shopping, use the Nutrition Tracker to get a clear picture of your nutrient levels. You may not need to change anything!
Who Needs a Supplement?
The decision to take a supplement should not be made haphazardly. It is best to seek advice from your physician or consult with a registered dietitian. This health professional should assess your dietary habits and intake, medical status, medication history, alcohol intake, and lifestyle habits. Some people who may need to take a multivitamin-mineral supplement include:
  • People with digestive diseases, illness or surgeries that can interfere with the absorption of certain vitamins and minerals and therefore increase needs
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women (increased need for iron, folic acid, and calcium)
  • Vegetarians who avoid all animal foods and may have a deficit of vitamin D, vitamin B-12, calcium, zinc, and iron
  • People who smoke (because smoking increases the need for vitamin C)
  • People with certain major illnesses or injuries that can increase the need for healing nutrients
  • Women with heavy menstrual bleeding (may need more iron)
  • Menopausal women (might benefit from calcium)
  • Women who are trying to conceive (preconception warrants an increase in folic acid to decrease the risk of certain birth defects)
  • People taking certain medications that can increase or decrease the effectiveness of vitamins and minerals
  • People following weight loss programs that severely restrict food intake or calorie levels (less than 1000-1200 calories per day), which can result in poor nutrient intake
  • People with food allergies that require avoiding groups of foods and may result in nutritional deficiencies
  • People who abuse alcohol (increases nutrient needs)

Being Supplement Savvy 
Do not fall into the dangerous trap of thinking that, if a little is good, more is better. Excessive intake of vitamins and minerals can do no good. It is a waste of money. And in some cases, excessive intake can damage the body, have a toxic effect, interfere with medications, and may even result in death. To choose a safe, effective vitamin-mineral supplement, follow these tips:
  • Choose a balanced multivitamin-mineral supplement rather than one or two specific nutrients, unless it has been medically prescribed.
  • Choose a supplement that provides close to 100-150% of the Daily Value (DV) for recognized nutrients. The exception to this is calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. If the supplement did contain 100% DV of these nutrients, it would be too large to swallow. Due to the cost, biotin is also often less than 100% of the DV. However, the need for supplemental biotin is rare.
  • Look for the "USP" insignia on the label. This ensures that the supplement meets the standards for strength, purity, disintegration and dissolution established by the testing organization, U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP).
  • Read the supplement label carefully. Follow serving size recommendations.
  • Avoid supplements that contain unrecognized nutrients and substances. A number of substances like PABA, inositol, bee pollen, lecithin, have never been shown to be essential to humans. They do nothing but boost the price.
  • Beware of gimmicks. Synthetic supplements that are made in a laboratory are usually the same as so-called "natural" supplements. The body knows no difference, but your wallet does. "Natural" supplements cost more.
  • Do not give in to the temptation of added herbs, enzymes, or amino acids. This only adds to the cost.
  • Avoid supplements that claim to be therapeutic, high-potency, or for stress. This adds cost with no additional benefits.
  • Choose a supplement with an expiration date on the container. Vitamins can lose potency over time, especially in hot and humid climates. Follow storage advice. Supplements should be kept in a cool, dry place, with a tight fitting lid.
  • Keep supplements in a locked cabinet away from children. Don’t leave them on the counter or rely on child-resistant packaging. Be especially careful with any supplements that contain iron. Iron overdose is a leading cause of poisoning deaths among children.
Bottom Line: A poor diet plus supplements is still a poor diet. Food remains your best source of vitamins and minerals. So spend a little more time and money on delicious, tasty meals and snacks to meet your nutritional needs. And remember, a supplement is just that…a little extra in addition to wise food choices. This little extra poses no danger and may be helpful at times– if chosen wisely.

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Member Comments

  • I think I might need a little bit of supplements but need to study on it more
  • I tried supplements for awhile, but I found they made me feel bad. Why do that? I think I can control my vitamins & minerals so much easier with my intake.
  • Anecdotal evidence is meaningless; your supplement probably "works" for you because you believe it does.
    Having said that, since I started tracking everything on SP, I saw that I am deficient in iron and potassium. The potassium has alleviated my issues with water-weight gain due to the normal monthly stuff, and also recurring ovarian cysts.

    And can we ban the Shaklee pyramid-schemers from this site, please???
  • "...Since it is natural you won't expect any harsh side effects." As a professional chemist, let me remind all readers that arsenic, mercury and lead are also completely "natural." The word "natural" is not a guarantee of safety.
    I could not agree more. Continuous exercise and proper diet can help lose weight safely.

    Supplements are not bad at all but then we need proper education and information on a particular supplement first before we even try it.

    I do not know if anyone tried Bella Amp'd but it is one of the good diet pills stuff out there. At least based from my experience. But before I tried that or any kind of pills, I try to find more about the product first, especially its side effects.

    So far the insane amp'd diet pills side effects are not that of a big deal. Since it is natural, you won't expect any harsh side effects. I guess, it pays to look for what's included in the pill before taking it.
  • I was always told, "Let food be thy medicine" Healthy nutritious foods can heal and improve your body overall.
  • I havent' taken any since I was a kid.
  • I am not an expert at all. I took vitamins and mineral supplements as I need them without advice from doctors and nurses. I took potassium due to low amount in my blood test. Thank SP nutrition tracker for helping me to see how much all vitamins and minerals I ate my meals. With the kind of help, I had cut down on certain vitamins like not taking vitamin C pills or potassium if the food have good source of whatever it have. I am doing good for few days with my diet plan and trying to get in good shape on fitness.
  • I am not an expert but I do take vitamins and a supplement for hot flashes. I do believe our soil of yester years has changed alot. I believe there are less minerals in the food and don't even mention the chemicals add to our food and meats. So I will continue to take my vitamins and supplement. I do not go very board with them. But it good to have info guiding us and even warning us of over use. I have many health challenges this is just one way I can help myself.
  • LOUISE6544
    I strongly feel that Becky has no knowledge of Shaklee Corp., where the science, safety and efficacy are proven to be there. I further disagree that we get all the nutrients from our food. That was the case once, but not anymore. Too many chemicals used deplete the nutrients in the soil in today's farming, thus depleting the nutrients in the foods grown. There is little or no rotation of crops to replenish nutrients the way there once was. Heavy and wide-spread use of chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers,etc., and GMO (genetically modified) plants/foods are another fact of life in farming today, The only safe and nutritious foods are those grown organically and "usually" locally on smaller farms where the rotation is done and the chemicals and GMO practices are not used.

    Those of us familiar with Shaklee and who take their supplements and herbs, know that Shaklee already proves the efficacy, safety and science behind all of their products. This company has almost 100 clinical studies to back up those claims - more than the next 4 or 5 competitors put together. Money cannot buy those studies! And the studies prove that what is stated is not only in the products, but that they work.

    In my humble opinion, most of the statements in this particular article are too broad and simply not the case with every single company. Sadly, it is true of way too many of them. You have to do your homework and research the producing company. You will also, sadly, find that most will not respond and almost none have published clinical studies that prove what's in the products and prove that the ingredients are organic and that they work. Celia (comment on 5/24/09) is on the right track, although there is no mention of where she gets those few, specific supplements. To your health - Louise
  • It was precisely SP's nutrient tracker that showed me my deficiencies in iron & selenium. I take a selenium supplement now. And to put in a good word for biotin supplements: as I aged, one of my nails started chronically splitting, until I started taking a "hair/skin/nails" multivitamin that contains a good amount of biotin as well as calcium & iron. Now my nails are healthy & unsplit. My doctor recommended a calcium/vitamin D supplement once I was in my 50s. I also still take glucosamine/chond
    roitin on my former doctor's recommendation; I've read that research does not support their effectiveness, but my body tells me they work to diminish pain in a few arthritic joints.

    I'm a very healthy person & take care to eat nutritious foods, but these supplements seem necessary as well.
  • I have been on vitamin and mineral supplements for years without the advice of a doctor or dietician. I now realize that some of my vitamins and minerals are over the recommended upper intake limit. I am getting off these supplements and relying on healthy food to get my vitamins and minerals. With the nutrition tracker, I am confident I can do this.
    I disagree with the premise that we can get all that we need from eating good food. There is no such thing as good food anymore in the sense that the soil that our food has been grown in has been stripped of the nutritional value by erosion and over working the soil. The soil has also been treated with the pesticides that we apply to the fruits and vegetables. This happens because there are good bacteria that are in the soils that are necessary for proper digestion that are eliminate by pesticides and herbicides used to mass produce our farm products. With this has been a great increase with digestive diseases. So foods grow in the soils are not able to supply what we need to fuel our bodies.
    The meats we eat are also suspect because again mass production methods cause the producers to add hormones and antibiotics to the cattle, pigs and chickens that we consume. We don't know how this is effecting us exactly but I don't this that it is good.

    What supplements should we use. Most are in pill form and I had a friend that worked for a sewage system who said that they had a place where solids were separated out and that many times these vitamins along with other kind of pills were found and that they could read the label on these. Which means none of those supplements that were consumed were absorbed they were just eliminated by the users bodies. We have said that we are what we eat but thats not true, we are what we absorb. If we can't get nutrition in a form with which it can be absorbed into our bodies we can't use it and thus it is a waste of money. I am not against supplements but many of them are not bio-available. Furthermore who knows how much to take of what and do I really trust my nutrition counseling on some college student that has gotten a job in a local vitamin shop or the latest "study" that says that we need this or that in our diets. What we take has to be synergistic and work together so that 1 + 1 has a greater effect than 2.
    I had taken handful of supplements for years and hoped that I was doing good. I had allergies...
  • @100LBLighter - just enter them yourself as a food/favorite & then add them like you do anything else. That way they add in.
  • I would love for our supplements/ vitamins and minerals would calculate in our food we would know if we were getting enough or too much.

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.