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The Supplement Story

February 18, 2011

By Megan Kian

In our society, we are always searching for an easy way out. For example, we tend to focus on short-term diets instead of making long-term lifestyle changes. With the abundance of dietary supplements available in health food stores like GNC, you may think that you can take supplements in place of eating healthy food that will provide you with the nutrients you need. However, supplements were created to compensate for nutrients that you may not be getting from your diet, not to provide you with 100 percent of the nutrients you need.

Supplements are not the ideal way to get your nutrients because:

  • Your body extracts nutrients best from whole foods that you consume.
  • Taking various supplements can hinder the uptake and absorption of other nutrients that you get from the foods you eat (for example calcium and iron compete for absorption).
  • You run the risk of taking in toxic amounts of certain nutrients. The FDA does not regulate supplements; therefore, if you take various supplements you could end up taking in too much of certain nutrients.
  • Many vitamins you get from supplements are water soluble, which means that whatever excess you take in will come out. We call this expensive urine!

There are certain cases in which supplements can be helpful. For example, pregnant women have increased nutrient needs that may not be achievable through diet alone, so a prenatal vitamin is recommended. And some people have nutrient deficiencies (e.g. vitamin D) or aren’t taking in enough of a certain nutrient (e.g. calcium). If you think you need to take a supplement, speak to a doctor or a registered dietitian before you start taking any. And keep in mind the following:

  1. Understand your nutrient needs and ask yourself if you can get the nutrients you need from your diet.
  2. Make sure to read the label when picking out a supplement.
  3. Take the correct dosage.

What do you think of supplements?

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  1. When I tell people I’m starting school to become an RD, many say, “Oh, you must have a whole cabinet full of supplements!” I then try to explain what you’ve described here (but you do so w/greater eloquence): I only supplement the handful of nutrients I *know* I’m not getting enough of from my diet alone.

    I try to eat whole foods that offer both variety and density of nutrients, and I track everything to see where I do or don’t meet recommended intakes (on average). Based on the latter, I occasionally supplement zinc, B12, and folic acid, and regularly with omega 3s. And to the point about dosage, I cut several of these into halves or quarters, b/c the amounts in a whole pill are often excessive.

    We’ve taken the same “evidence-based” approach with our son. We started supplementing iron in his diet after tests confirmed he was mildly anemic as a young toddler. But as the milk-heavy diet was gradually replaced (and thus not inundating him w/competitive calcium) as he ate a greater variety of foods, he no longer needed the supplement.

    1. First of all, congrats on going to get your RD!! Thanks for sharing your personal experience with supplements!

  2. Hi Meg,

    Just wanted to stop by and say I enjoyed this article and I enjoyed your take on actually improving your diet to get vitamin levels up, one problem I hear all the time is the cost of the foods that are essentially “healthy”, with rising food costs people are turning to cheap solutions and vitamin pills, I just wondered what your take was on this? Do you think taking a mass amount of supplements instead of buying good healthy foods can actually be detrimental to our health?

    Would love to get your thoughts,
    Mick.