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Supplements: Nutrition in a pill?

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Nov 17, 2020.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that your nutritional needs should be met primarily through your diet. But for some people, supplements may be a useful way to get nutrients they might otherwise lack.

Could a vitamin and mineral supplement help you? Get the facts before you buy.

Supplements vs. whole foods

Supplements aren't intended to replace food. They can't replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Whole foods offer three main benefits over dietary supplements:

  • Greater nutrition. Whole foods are complex, containing a variety of the micronutrients your body needs.
  • Essential fiber. Whole foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, provide dietary fiber. Dietary fiber can help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, stroke and heart disease.
  • Protective substances. Many whole foods contain chemicals that promote health, such as antioxidants — substances that slow down a natural process leading to cell and tissue damage.

Who needs supplements?

You likely don't need supplements if you're a healthy adult who eats a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and fish.

But supplements — or fortified foods — may be appropriate if you:

  • Are pregnant or are trying to get pregnant
  • Are age 50 or older
  • Have a poor appetite or have trouble getting nutritious foods
  • Follow a diet that excludes entire food groups
  • Have a medical condition that affects how your body digests nutrients, such as chronic diarrhea, food allergies, food intolerance, or a disease of the liver, gallbladder, intestines or pancreas
  • Have had surgery on your digestive tract that affects how your body digests nutrients

If you're wondering whether you need a vitamin and mineral supplement, talk to your doctor or dietitian. Be sure to ask about dosage, side effects and possible interactions with any medications you take.

Choosing and using supplements

If you decide to take a supplement, it's important to:

  • Check the label. Product labels can tell you what the active ingredient or ingredients are, which nutrients are included, the serving size, and the amount of nutrients in each serving.
  • Avoid megadoses. Taking more than the recommended daily values can increase your risk of side effects.
  • Watch what you eat. Vitamins and minerals are being added to a growing number of foods, including breakfast cereals and beverages. If you're also taking supplements, you may be getting more than you realize. Taking more than you need is expensive and can increase the risk of side effects.
  • Tell your doctor. Supplements can cause harmful effects if taken in certain combinations, with certain prescription drugs, or before surgery or other procedures.
  • Watch for alerts and recalls. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate supplements to the same degree as it does prescription drugs. But the FDA does monitor their safety. It's a good idea to periodically check the FDA website for warnings and recalls.
  • Report problems. If you think that a dietary supplement may have caused you to have a serious reaction or illness, stop taking it and talk with your doctor. Your doctor may suggest that you go online and submit a safety report to the FDA.

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