Most of us know that good nutrition is important for good health. However, when we hear claims such as "immune booster" or learn that a new supplement just hit the shelves, it can make us wonder if the food we're eating is enough.
Taking a daily dose of any of the single minerals, vitamins or multivitamin/mineral supplements that line the shelves of supermarkets and drug stores may be tempting. However, according to the 2020 - 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, "Nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods and beverages — specifically nutrient-dense foods and beverages."
The Dietary Guidelines recognize there may be a need for some people to take supplements at certain times in their lives. In those cases, the safety of taking a supplement always needs to be considered. High amounts of some vitamins and minerals may cause health issues.
Who may need to take a supplement?
Nutrient deficiencies are not common among Americans, but for varying reasons some people cannot reach the recommended amounts of important nutrients without including fortified foods and/or using supplements.
Infants and Toddlers
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting vitamin D supplementation for breastfed infants within the first few days of life. Infant formulas contain vitamin D, but if less than the recommended amount is consumed each day, then a baby may need a supplement.
Full-term infants can get many of the other nutrients they need from breastmilk, but by about 4 months they need an additional source of iron. The AAP recommends an iron supplement for infants who are exclusively breastfed until they begin complementary feeding. Then iron-rich foods are encouraged, such as pureed meats or fortified infant cereals. Be sure to check with your baby's pediatrician before giving any supplements to your child.
In order to reduce the risk of some birth defects, it is recommended that women who could become pregnant consume 400 micrograms per day of folic acid from fortified foods and/or supplements in addition to natural sources of folate. A variety of foods, including many fruits and vegetables, provide folate, and most grain products in the U.S. are fortified with folic acid.
During pregnancy, women are also at risk of other nutrient deficiencies, including iron, choline, and iodine. Depending on food intake, additional supplementation may be recommended by a health care provider.
As people age, it can be difficult to absorb enough vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Sources of vitamin B12 include beef, chicken, fish and shellfish, milk and other dairy products. It's also found in some fortified foods like breakfast cereals, meat substitutes and soymilk. Vitamin D is available in fatty fish as well as fortified milk and some fortified cereals. Choosing food sources to obtain these important nutrients is encouraged, but a supplement may also be needed.
Special Medical Conditions
Individuals with limited food choices due to allergies or medical conditions, like celiac disease, are also at increased risk of nutrient deficiencies. The same is true for individuals following vegetarian or vegan eating patterns. There is a need to plan meals more carefully to meet all their nutrient needs. Including fortified foods and beverages can help.
Other groups who may require additional supplementation include people who are taking certain medications or have had gastric bypass surgery or have other health conditions that change how their body uses nutrients.
Talk With Your Healthcare Provider
Your doctor can order tests to help determine if taking a supplement would benefit you. The results might show that you are low in a certain nutrient or you might discover that you're doing just fine. Additionally, a registered dietitian nutritionist can help you evaluate the foods you eat and make recommendations to meet your personal needs. Be sure to consider your individual situation and consult a doctor or an RDN before considering supplements.