A few years ago you started taking a daily multivitamin to improve your health. Then your co-worker told you apple cider vinegar could lower your blood pressure and even help you lose weight. Later you started using turmeric after you heard it could help with digestion. And then your favorite blogger started taking bee pollen capsules to her lower cholesterol and boost her immune system. Eventually, you found yourself spending almost as much money on supplements as you do on food!
But is this necessary? Do you really need all those dietary supplements?
Probably not, according to some experts.
Anna Threadcraft, a registered dietitian and nutritionist and the Director of Employee Wellness at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, refutes the notion that everyone must take a supplement or multivitamin to be healthy.
“Contrary to popular opinion, a person’s first line of defense to get the needed nutrients in a day should come from what’s on the plate,” Anna says.
Furthermore, there may be little to no evidence that the supplements you’re taking can actually improve your health.
Susan Thomas, a registered dietitian at TriStar Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, TN, says there is currently not a substantial amount of scientific-based studies on the therapeutic health benefits of apple cider vinegar or bee pollen, for example. While there is some research to support the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric and its benefits to digestion, Susan describes the findings as “controversial” and reminds consumers that federal law does not require that dietary supplements be proven safe by the Food and Drug Administration before they are marketed.
“In my opinion, most individuals are able to achieve sufficient vitamins and minerals from a balanced meal plan without the need for dietary supplements,” Susan says.
That’s not to say that Susan ignores the buzz about supplements.
“It is important as healthcare professionals to stay abreast of the latest advances in research regarding popular nutritional supplement options, such as apple cider vinegar or bee pollen,” she says.
And Anna asserts that some individuals do benefit from dietary supplements.
“A supplement can be a wonderful addition for someone’s daily routine if dietary restrictions prevent them from consuming an adequate amount of a specific nutrient or if a person’s age or a medical condition decreases their nutrient absorption,” she says.
Even the gold standard of 1200 milligrams a day of calcium for women over the age of 50 (many times taken through supplements) is getting pushback. Many doctors are now siting studies that show that you should be able to get enough calcium through your food and high doses of calcium, delivered by way of supplements, may lead to an increased risk of kidney stones and cardiac arrest. This Harvard Study is easy to read and breaks down the potential health differences when you receive your calcium via supplements rather than through food. An article in MedicalXpress further explains the difference in risk factors for people getting their daily calcium intake via supplements rather than food: “Researchers who worked on the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association say this should give people pause if they are taking calcium supplements.”
Beware, though, that if you’re thinking you’ll take supplements “just in case,” you may be doing more harm than good by taking supplements you don’t need.
“Too much of a good thing is often still too much,” Anna says. “Some supplements can have adverse effects if taken in large doses, as well as interfere with certain medications.”
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Anna and Susan both say you should consult your primary care physician before taking any dietary supplements, especially if you’re on medication for a health condition.
“Having blood work done is one of the most tried and true ways to know how your body is absorbing what you eat and if your body is deficient in something that would require a supplement,” Anna says.
What’s On Your Plate?
Getting the vitamins and nutrients you need through food may be easier than you think.
“Many foods and beverages are actually now fortified,” Anna says. “This means that something that wasn’t originally in the food or drink has been added to it to improve the overall nutrient content.”
For example, vitamin D isn’t naturally found in milk but is added to it to improve the body’s ability to absorb the calcium that is naturally in milk.
And, of course, one of the best ways to get the nutrients you need is to eat your vegetables as your mom always told you to do. Opt for bold-colored fruits and vegetables, Anna recommends.
Even frozen vegetables can get the job done.
“Quite often, frozen veggies have just as many nutrients as fresh vegetables as they are picked at peak season and immediately frozen, maintaining a significant amount of their nutrient content,” Anna says.
She recommends steaming vegetables instead of submerging them in water to help preserve more of the nutrients. If you do boil your vegetables, try using the leftover water to make soup so you can save the nutrients lost while cooking.
“The USDA’s ‘My Plate’ guidelines not only allow for all foods to fit in moderation,” Anna says, “but also makes it a lot more fun than swallowing a pill to consume the nutrients needed each day.”
Find more helpful health information in our “Health & Fitness” section!