Dietary Supplements: Do you need them?

Confused about dietary supplements? Not sure if you should be taking one? Keep reading to learn about the pros and cons of supplements.


By Liz Thompson


Loads of people take dietary supplements these days. They’re sold everywhere, from health stores and pharmacies to supermarkets and even online. Do you take supplements? Why did you decide to take them? In this article, we’ll look at whether we really need supplements in our diet, and whether they’re recommended by health professionals or not. Let’s get to it!

What are dietary supplements?

According to federal laws, dietary supplements are defined as products that are taken by mouth and are intended to supplement the diet. They come in different forms, including tablets, powders, capsules, or liquids, and all of these can contain one or more dietary ingredients, such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and even herbs.

Why take them?

As the name suggests, the main reason people take supplements is because they feel their diet is lacking in a particular area of nutrients. Some believe taking supplements can help to prevent chronic diseases, boost energy levels and the immune system, or improve other health-related conditions.

Others take supplements simply because their friends have recommended them or they saw a catchy ad online.

Who needs dietary supplements?

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, "nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods." That implies most healthy people don't need to take supplements if they consume a healthy, balanced diet.

However, healthcare providers may recommend that some people should take dietary supplements. For example, people with a poor appetite, low dietary intake, certain food limitations (such as vegetarians and vegans), certain diseases, or allergies to some products. Supplements are also recommended to those who are at a higher risk of nutrient deficiencies, those who take medications that affect how the body absorbs or uses certain nutrients, or those who follow a low-calorie diet, as well as older adults, and women who could become pregnant, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding. If you fall into any of these groups or think you may benefit from taking a supplement, consult your doctor to find out what’s best for you.

Supplement regulations

Though many people take supplements, not everyone knows exactly how they are regulated. The FDA oversees dietary supplements as foods rather than medications, so the regulations are not as strict as the rules for medicines. Supplements can be put on the market without even proving they are safe or effective.

What’s more, it’s up to the manufacturer of the supplement to accurately label the ingredients in the supplement, not a regulatory body. With that being the case, taking supplements can be risky, and you need to be careful what you ingest! Head to the FDA website to learn more about dietary supplement regulations.


Taking supplements to prevent chronic illnesses is definitely not recommended, and a high dose of some supplements can even be harmful. For example, too much vitamin B6 can cause nerve damage, excess calcium and vitamin D can be linked with higher risks of heart disease and kidney stones, and a high intake of vitamin A can cause birth defects. Note also that some micronutrients can interact with certain medications; for example, vitamin K can interact with certain blood thinning medications and impact their effectiveness.

Further, some study results also suggest that antioxidant supplements do not prevent chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes or cancer, and high doses can even be harmful. Excess vitamin E from supplements can trigger bleeding and increase the risk of having a stroke. Among smokers, excess supplementation of beta-carotene may be linked to increased risk of lung cancer.

Refer to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements website for more detailed information on specific nutrients and supplements.

Fish oil supplements

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as there are exceptions. While the majority of supplements don’t seem to provide many benefits for the average person with a balanced diet, some supplements can actually help in certain situations.

Fish oil supplements are often recommended for people with heart disease who are unable to get enough fish from their diet, and can also aid those with high levels of triglycerides. That said, it’s important to consult with a physician before you start taking any supplements, and should only be taken under their advice.

Be wise!

If you plan to start taking supplements, here are a few important reminders:

-Consult with your doctor before taking any supplements, and find out exactly what brand and dosage they recommend.

-Don’t self-diagnose your health condition. Go and see a doctor if you’re worried about something.

-Never overdose on supplements. Not only do you not need the extra nutrients, but the excess may actually harm your body.

-Unless recommended by your doctor, choose a multivitamin instead of a single nutrient supplement.

-Use supplements manufactured by credible companies. Can you see the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) logo on the bottle? Supplements with this mark have been tested and certain requirements, such as an accurate ingredient label, have been verified.

To learn more about supplement safety and how to choose supplements wisely, you can also check out the FDA website.

Food vs. supplements

Remember, getting nutrients from natural food sources wherever you can is much better for your health than taking a supplement. However, if you still feel you aren’t getting enough of a particular nutrient in your diet, check with your doctor to see if they recommend a supplement.

People rarely get nutrient toxicities from whole foods, but, as already discussed, high doses of a single nutrient from supplements can easily cause negative health effects.

What’s more, our bodies generally absorb and use nutrients much better when they’re consumed in their food form than the nutrient we get from a single supplement pill. Foods come with a whole package of multiple nutrients. In addition to providing us with multiple nutrients, the various nutrients in foods can also interact with each other or support the absorption of others.

Keep in mind many of the other things we get through the experience of eating. Supplements can’t give you that enjoyable satisfaction of eating a meal, wouldn’t you agree? The multitude of smells, tastes, and textures of food can trigger our body’s fullness cues, leaving us feeling content at the end of a meal.

The bottom line

All in all, taking a few pills won’t be a quick fix for health problems. While there are some people who may need supplements in their diet, it’s generally recommended to get all of your nutrients from food, largely because you can’t always know the safety, purity, or effectiveness of a supplement. To ensure nutritional adequacy, focus on eating a balanced diet with a variety of food groups, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and a limited intake of fat and sugar.

However, if you think you may need supplements for any particular reason, be sure to consult your doctor before taking any supplements.

Liz is passionate about helping people improve their health and wellness through lifestyle and nutrition changes, and she is especially interested in diabetes prevention and management. Liz enjoys working with clients to find individualized strategies to improve their health in ways that last. Outside of work, you will likely find her rock climbing, biking, or spending time with her family.

Main Photo Credit: Pat_Hastings/; Second Photo Credit: MIA Studio/; Third Photo Credit: Iakov Filimonov/; Fourth Photo Credit & Fifth Photo Credit: Syda Productions/

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