Around 50% of Americans take a dietary supplement. Are we actually making ourselves healthier or just throwing our money away?

Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
February 27, 2020
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Credit: Getty Images / anilakkus

Wouldn't it be nice to just pop a pill and not worry about eating your vegetables? Unfortunately, it doesn't really work like that when it comes to vitamin and mineral supplements. Around 50% of Americans report taking some kind of dietary supplement, with about 30% taking a multivitamin. We're also spending billions of dollars (around $40 billion in 2014) on supplements. That's a pretty big investment to make, especially when you consider 90% of us don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. So, should you take a supplement? Here's what I think about nutrients in pill form.

Supplements are poorly regulated

This is a big one. Dietary supplements fall under the FDA, but they aren't regulated the same way as food. The responsibility to actually regulate what's in the products falls on the companies who make them. That's not to say you can't find trustworthy supplements. But you'll want to be careful about what you're buying and where you're getting it from.

Since the FDA doesn't verify that supplements contain what they say they do, do your research. Look for a supplement that has been third-party tested (the USP seal is one example).

They can be helpful

Research shows that people who take multivitamins get more nutrients in their diet. That makes sense. But are they nutrients that people really need? Sometimes.

The most common nutrient deficiency is iron. It's possible to eat lots of iron-rich foods, but for some groups—like women and young kids—it can be harder to get enough. Low iron can cause anemia. Symptoms can include fatigue, GI distress and decreased cognitive function. But before you pop an iron pill, it's worth getting tested at your doctor's office to be sure.

Vitamin D is another vitamin many of us don't get enough of, and it can be hard to get through your diet (especially in winter months). We can make vitamin D from sunshine (so cool), and it's important for healthy bones and a healthy immune system. It's found in a few foods (and a few fortified foods), but it could also be worth talking to your doctor about supplementing.

Other nutrients we tend to miss out on are vitamin B12 (especially for vegans), magnesium, calcium, potassium and omega-3s.

Because of many factors, it's nice to know that the option is there to supplement. Whether it's challenging to eat a nutrient-rich diet or your body isn't absorbing certain nutrients, supplementing can be a good option, especially for certain groups—pregnant women, kids, people with chronic conditions, vegans, etc.

But, they can also be harmful

On the flip side, you need to be educated about what you're putting in your body.

With certain vitamins, your body will just pee out the extra (because they're water soluble). But plenty of vitamins and minerals can build up and cause toxicity. Just because vitamin D is good for you, doesn't mean that more is better (too much can lead to toxicity and cause nausea, constipation and weakness). As long as you eat a varied diet, you likely won't get too much of a nutrient from food. But it's pretty easy to go past the tolerable upper limits (where adverse effects can start) when you're supplementing.

Supplements can also interact with medications you're taking. And because it's hard to know exactly what you're getting, you may be getting more than you've bargained for.

Bottom line

It makes sense that taking a multivitamin feels like an insurance policy. On the days you don't get enough nutrients in your diet, you feel like you're covered. But, generally speaking, the research isn't there to support it for health (as far as most healthy people go). Not to mention, if taking a vitamin means you're less likely to eat your vegetables, you should probably put the pills down. While you can get the same amount of vitamins and minerals from pills, we know that food has other healthy things going for it (like antioxidants and fiber).

There are plenty of supplements that may benefit you and your personal health goals and needs, but you should really talk to your doctor before you start a supplement regime. Not only are they unregulated and expensive, they could be doing harm. Get the OK from your doc, and make sure to shop around for a supplement you trust.

Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.