Robin Brett Parnes, MS, MPH
Around 400 BC, the celebrated Greek physician Hippocrates offered some advice about diet and health. He declared, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." The growing number of Americans who turn to supplements to make up for a poor diet ought to pay attention to those words of wisdom.
Each day, millions of adults in the United States take high doses of vitamins and minerals with hopes of feeling better, getting sick less often, and living longer. For years, physicians told consumers that, at worst, they were just wasting their money. But now, the word is to be careful—because high doses of certain vitamins and minerals may actually
the risk of disease.
As you probably already know, we need vitamins—by far the most popular choice of supplement—to live (that is, they are ‘vital’ to our survival). The body cannot make them on its own, so we must get vitamins from our diet. Similarly, we need minerals like
to function, and must rely on outside sources to meet our requirements. (Other supplements, such as herbs, are a whole other story.)
Although supplements are a good idea in certain cases (such as for pregnant women, the elderly, and vegetarians), experts agree the best way for you to get the nutrients you need is by eating
a well-balanced, healthful diet.
One hundred years ago, scientists began to identify the nutrients in foods that we need to avoid getting deficiency diseases like beriberi and
rickets. With attention being given to the benefits of vitamins and minerals, it’s no wonder that many of us choose to take supplements. Problems arise, however, when people take individual vitamins or minerals in excessive amounts, rather than eat a nutritious diet.
Use the following chart as a guide:
While it may be promising, the evidence so far linking supplements with a reduced risk of chronic disease is much less convincing than most people realize. What is clear is just how easy it is to overdose on certain supplements. Also, many supplements may interact with medications you currently take. Therefore, your best bet is to get most of the nutrients you need from the foods you eat. For a healthful diet, be sure to include lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains (like whole wheat bread and brown rice), unsaturated fats (found in nuts, avocados, and oils), and low-fat dairy products.
If you do take supplements, keep the following in mind:
National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements
United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service
Dietitians of Canada
Health Canada Food and Nutrition
Folate. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/folate-HealthProfessional. Updated December 14, 2012. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Iron. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron-HealthProfessional. Updated August 24, 2007. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Niacin. Linus Pauling Institute Oregon State University website. Available at: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/vitamins/niacin. Updated July 2013. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Selenium. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional. Updated July 2, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Vitamin A. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Vitamina-HealthProfessional. Updated June 5, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2014..
Vitamin B3. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary. Updated August 22, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Vitamin B6. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB6-HealthProfessional. Updated September 15, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Vitamin C. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional. Updated June 5, 2013. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Vitamin D. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/vitamind-HealthProfessional. Updated June 24, 2011. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Vitamin supplementation for cardiovascular disease prevention. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated March 7, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2014.
Last reviewed April 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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