Before you grab a bottle of supplements, consider this: A pill is not the best way to get all the vitamins and minerals you need. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises you meet your nutrient needs primarily by the foods you eat. And extra vitamin gummy bears don’t count.
Who needs vitamins?
According to both the American Academy of Family Physicians and the Mayo Clinic, dietary supplements may be appropriate if you:
- Have certain health problems diagnosed by your doctor
- Eat a vegetarian or vegan diet
- Are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding
- Consume less than 1,600 calories a day
For the rest of us, if you eat a well-balanced diet—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats and fish—you probably don’t need vitamin supplements.
A multivitamin is an option if you’re worried about getting all the vitamins and minerals you need. If you choose this route, “stick with dietary supplements that contain no more than 100 percent of the daily value for any given nutrient,” says the Mayo Clinic.
Go the whole foods route
Want to help your body? Eat whole foods. Unlike pills, they contain a variety of nutrients your body needs. For example, a banana contains vitamin C and B, fiber, potassium and tons of other nutrients you wouldn’t get from a vitamin C drop.
On top of greater nutrition, whole foods also have protective substances—like antioxidants—and fiber. The American Dietetic Association recommends between 25 and 35 grams of fiber a day.
Too much of a good thing
The American Heart Association says “almost any nutrient can be potentially toxic if consumed in large quantities over a long time.”
Scary, right? “More is not necessarily better with supplements, especially if you take fat-soluble vitamins,” says the FDA’s Vasilios Frankos, who is director of the division of dietary supplement programs.
Fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K.
Water-soluble vitamins (B-complex, C and folic acid) also have side effects if taken in large amounts. Too much vitamin C can cause upset stomach, kidney stones and increased iron absorption. Too much B-6 can cause nerve damage to the limbs.
What about herbs?
Herbs are gaining popularity. But think before you take them. According to the Mayo Clinic, herbal supplements have active ingredients that can affect how your body functions, and they can be particularly risky if
- You’re taking prescription or over-the-counter drugs, especially aspirin, blood thinners or blood pressure medications.
- Your medical condition has a proven medical treatment.
- You’re pregnant or breast-feeding.
- You’re having surgery. Some herbs may decrease the effectiveness of anesthetics or cause bleeding or high blood pressure.
- You’re younger than 18 or older than 65.
The bottom line
Vitamins, minerals and herbs—unlike medications—don’t need FDA approval before going to market. The bottom line? Read the label before you buy, talk to your health care provider before starting on supplements, and be careful about what you consume—whether it’s food or supplement. After all, it’s your body. Take care of it.