To Supplement or Not?


A big question on the minds of those who feel that “a little something extra” will help maintain health, especially when surrounded by infectious diseases. First, to clarify the terminology. Dietary supplement is a term that covers multiple preparations; vitamins (any of a group of organic compounds essential for normal growth and nutrition and are required in small quantities in the diet), minerals (solid inorganic substances that occur naturally), botanicals (substances derived from plants used as an additive) and biosimilar products (biological products that are highly similar to existing FDA-approved reference products). Herbal preparations (plants or plant parts used for scent, flavor or therapeutic properties) can also be considered supplements. The term supplement is usually used to refer to an individual vitamin or mineral preparation or a multivitamin (a product that contains 10 or more vitamins, minerals or both). They’re big business, generating about $30 billion annually in the United States, as they’re taken by 70% of adults daily. The question is, though, are they good medicine or a waste of money?

Nutrition experts consistently hold that a “food first” approach to achieving nutritional adequacy is the best way to support health and wellness, since vitamin absorption occurs best through a healthy diet. Supplements are never a substitute for a balanced diet, and can be a distraction from a healthy lifestyle, as with the individual who feels that a multivitamin can “make up for” a dearth of necessary vitamins in their daily intake. For some people, just taking “a little something extra” helps them to feel as if they’re giving their bodies that additional edge to avoid illness. But, is it really? What does the science indicate?

There’s a wealth of information regarding supplement use, and as is the case with pretty much anything being offered commercially, one will always be able to find data to back up the usage of something that someone is trying to sell. It’s up to the consumer to ascertain if a particular supplement is right for them. How would one do that? Discuss the use of a supplement with your healthcare provider. He/she can ensure that the supplement may benefit you and won’t interact with other medications you’re taking or pose risks if you have certain medical conditions. For example, it’s well documented that calcium and vitamin D can strengthen bones, so these may be recommended to an individual diagnosed with osteoporosis. That needs to be balanced with the fact that extra calcium and vitamin D may increase the risk of kidney stones, though. Supplementation in an individual withan already increased risk for kidney stones may not be in their best interest.    If a supplement has been recommended to you, do your own research as to how it would, or would not, benefit you. How to do this? Many get information from internet sources, which should be evaluated as to the validity of their information. Just because a search result comes up with multiple reviews doesn’t mean they’re all accurate, valid or useful. The following agencies can provide vast amounts of information on health and disease that have been thoroughly evaluated and found to be credible and helpful:

Harvard Health Publications ( National Institutes of Health ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( Cleveland Clinic Health Information Center ( The most common dietary supplements used in the U.S. are multivitamins, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C. There is a wealth of data regarding the effectiveness of these supplements, and which dosages are the most beneficial, if at all.