Get Street-Wise About Supplements

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

Plenty of good advice on supplements, thanks Report
Some great information Report
Good article.
However I absolutely disagree with "Avoid supplements that claim to be therapeutic... or for stress. This adds cost with no additional benefits."

With doctor approval I now take 'Olly Goodbye Stress' gummies (GABA, L-Theanine, Lemon Balm Extract) in place of my afternoon Valium, and it works just as well as the Valium does to relax me. Report
Good information here Report
Thanks for the good information:) Report
Good information to know Report
Great information. Thanks. Report
In my early 20's I made the mistake of drinking slim fast and taking OTC supplements. I figured more was better than less. I almost poisoned myself. ~sigh~

Don't do what I did folks. Talk to your doctor before taking over-the-counter supplements. Report
Good to know. Report
thank you Report
Following the SparkPeople food tracker, it seemed I was always low in potassium, and I take a diuretic, so have supplemented with potassium. Report
Good to know, thanks! Report
Thanks for the information Report
Good information. Report
Great info! Thanks! Report


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.