Are vitamin supplements really necessary?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all Americans are taking dietary supplements—from daily multivitamins to herbal tablets. The vitamin aisle in the grocery store can be overwhelming, especially as more vitamins are segmented to specific age groups and genders.
The problem is, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), “The manufacturer of a dietary supplement or dietary ingredient is responsible for ensuring that the product is safe before it is marketed; and [the] FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market.” This means that, unlike prescription medications, a manufacturer of these vitamins do not have to prove the product’s safety.
“So you don’t always know what’s inside the [vitamin or supplement] pill you’re taking,” says Dr. Bruce Hyman, internal medicine physician with Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill. “As a physician, I would ask my patients about their diet. If the diet conformed to recommended nutritional guidelines, then they are getting everything they need and don’t need to take a vitamin.”
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) agrees. In a position statement regarding nutrient supplements, the ADA states that “the best nutrition-based strategy for promoting optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to wisely choose a wide variety of foods.”
So when is it OK to take a vitamin supplement?
“I would recommend a vitamin to my patients who, after a nutrition history, aren’t eating certain groups of food—such as strict vegetarians or vegans,” says Dr. Hyman.
The ADA also recognizes groups that may benefit from nutritional supplements, including:
- Folic acid supplements for women of childbearing age who may become pregnant
- Vitamin D supplements for infants who are exclusively or partly breastfed, and for children at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency
- Vitamin B-12 for adults older than age 50
“But for a healthy person, you need to realize that if one is good, a hundred isn’t always better. There are possible side effects of mega-doses of vitamins,” says Dr. Hyman. “Further, if a patient has an underlying condition or is taking certain medications, taking a nutritional supplement could have serious harmful effects. Before you ever start taking any kind of supplement, make sure you consult with your physician.”
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