Vitamins & minerals

Vitamin & Mineral Supplements – Do You Need Them?

Posted on by Lindsay Frank RD, CD, CNSC. This entry was posted in Staying Healthy. Bookmark the permalink.

Dietary supplements constitute a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. With revenue like this, it’s no surprise that the variety of vitamins and minerals available is soaring, as are the claims for better health. Despite the fact that over half of U.S. adults take some form of dietary supplement, few are certain about what they actually need. What’s more, many people don’t realize that vitamins and minerals are not always benign. There are risks to taking excessive doses, and, for most people, the evidence for benefits are lacking.

Another important fact that cannot be emphasized enough is the poor regulation of dietary supplements. By law, dietary supplements do not need to be tested for safety or effectiveness prior to marketing. Standardization is also not required of dietary supplements, which would help ensure that each batch of the same product contains the same amount of each ingredient. Some dietary supplement manufacturers opt to be regulated by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). Supplements that have a “USP” seal on their label have passed tests for purity and potency of ingredients.

So, do you need to take a vitamin/mineral supplement? While I’d like to say no, the correct answer is “it depends.” A balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables should provide sufficient amounts of all the necessary vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, the average American’s diet is far from perfect.  Furthermore, in some areas where the only produce available comes from large factory farms, the soil is often depleted, which alters the nutrient content of the food grown in it.

Keep the key points listed below in mind when deciding whether or not to take a dietary supplement.

  • Dietary supplements cannot replace food and will not make up for a poor diet. Not only are nutrients better absorbed from food, but food also contains various phytochemicals that have important roles in maintaining good health and preventing disease.
  • Vitamin D is the only vitamin supplement that I fully support, especially for people who do not spend much time outside in the sun (without sunscreen) or people who live in northern areas – especially during winter. Vitamin D has been a hot topic in nutrition research for the past few years. Deficiency of vitamin D may contribute to osteoporosis and has been associated with increased rates of some cancers and autoimmune diseases.
  • A vitamin B12 supplement may be necessary if you are a vegan or eat very little animal products. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products.
  • More is not necessarily better. Do not take more than 100% of the recommended daily intake of any one vitamin or mineral on a regular basis. Doing so may impair absorption (and possibly induce deficiency) of other vitamins or minerals.
  • Use caution when taking supplements that contain high doses of vitamin A, beta-carotene, and folic acid. Too much of these nutrients from supplements (not from food) may significantly increase cancer risk.
  • Iron supplements should only be taken when there is a definite iron deficiency because of concern about relationships between iron and heart disease & cancer. Men and post-menopausal women should avoid multivitamin/mineral supplements containing iron as well as highly fortified foods.

Looking to improve your diet while you’re at work without taking a bunch of supplements? The Plaza Café at UW Medical Center strives to give you lots of healthy options daily. You can find plenty of vitamins and minerals in the variety of fresh vegetables, fiber in whole grains, and healthy protein in our lean meats and vegetarian dishes.


NOTE: The above comments only apply to healthy adults. Various health conditions and diseases may alter an individual’s micronutrient needs, which may necessitate vitamin/mineral supplementation. If you are concerned that you may have a deficiency or need a specific supplement, check with your doctor and speak with a dietitian to see how you may be able to adapt your diet to fill in any gaps.

Lindsay_FrankLindsay Frank RD,CD,CNSC is an inpatient dietitian for medicine/surgery patients at UWMC. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in dietetics. In her free time, she enjoys running and cooking.

This post was originally published in the RD Blog. You can visit the RD Blog and see its archives if you have a UW Medicine ID.

2 Thoughts on “Vitamin & Mineral Supplements – Do You Need Them?”

On January 21, 2014 at 10:04 PM, Marti Young said:

Lindsay, how do you feel about fish oil supplementation for anti-inflammatory effect? Thanks.

    On January 22, 2014 at 6:59 PM, Lindsay Frank said:

    I am pro-fish oil supplements! There is solid evidence to support that intake of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil) has anti-inflammatory effects (through a very complex mechanism involving gene expression, which I won’t bore you with). Of course, you could also get these beneficial omega-3s by eating fish, flaxseed or walnuts.

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