Vitamin and mineral supplements can be costly. Taking them regularly might make you feel like you’re leading a healthier lifestyle. But a number of research studies suggest that supplements aren’t always beneficial. Taking certain vitamin and mineral supplements may even do more harm than good.
For some people, vitamin and mineral supplements offer important health benefits. If you have certain health conditions or needs, your doctor may suggest adding a supplement to your daily routine. But people who take supplements as an “insurance policy” against poor eating habits might increase their risk of health problems.
So how do you know what’s right for you? The best way is to talk to your doctor before taking dietary supplements. If you’re already taking supplements, ask them if it’s a good choice to continue. On top of raising your risk of certain health problems, some supplements may interact with medications that you’re taking.
If a small amount of something is good, you might think that a larger amount would be even better. But that formula doesn’t always work when it comes to vitamins and minerals.
Researchers from the Iowa Women’s Health Study followed over 38,000 women, aged 55 and older, for a period of 20 years. According to results published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, they found that most vitamin and mineral supplements weren’t associated with a lower risk of dying during the study. Calcium supplements were associated with a slightly lower risk of death. But a number of other commonly used supplements, especially iron, were linked to a higher risk of death.
This research doesn’t mean that iron and other vitamins and minerals are bad for you. You need to have iron in your diet and body to be healthy. And for people with certain medical conditions, such as anemia, iron supplements are often vital. But this study does suggest that for healthy people, taking extra iron in supplement form may cause harm.
Other vitamin and mineral supplements may also do more harm than good. According to the Mayo Clinic, research suggests that taking vitamin E supplements may raise your risk of heart failure and premature death. The Mayo Clinic also warns that taking more than 200 milligrams of vitamin B-6 per day may cause nerve pain and seizures. Recent research reported by the National Institutes of Health also suggests that too much vitamin A may be bad for your bones.
Talk to your doctor to learn more about the potential risks and benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements.
It’s important to remember that dietary supplements can’t take the place of a well-balanced diet. Some people believe that popping a multivitamin pill can make up for poor eating habits. In reality, vitamin and mineral supplements don’t offer a magic solution.
If you suspect that you aren’t getting the nutrients you need, consider shifting your focus from supplements to eating better. According to the Mayo Clinic, nutrient-rich whole foods — such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — provide many benefits over dietary supplements:
- Whole foods contain multiple micronutrients that may work together to provide more perks than they would alone.
- Many whole foods are rich sources of dietary fiber. A diet rich in fiber can help lower your risk of many health conditions, including constipation and heart disease.
- Many whole foods also contain phytochemicals. These substances may help protect you against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other health conditions.
For healthy eating tips, talk to your doctor or registered dietitian.
Most people can get the vitamins and minerals they need by eating a well-balanced diet that contains a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein. But some people have special nutrition needs that can’t be met through diet alone. In certain circumstances, your doctor may recommend taking a vitamin or mineral supplement.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans make the following recommendations:
- Adults over age 50 should take a vitamin B-12 supplement or add foods fortified with vitamin B-12 to their diets. Many breakfast cereals and some soy products are fortified with B-12.
- Older adults, people with dark-colored skin, and people who don’t get much sunlight exposure should take a vitamin D supplement or add foods fortified with vitamin D to their diet. Some dairy products, soy products, orange juice, and breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D.
- Women who may become pregnant or are already pregnant, and are planning to carry their fetus to term, should take a folic acid supplement or add foods fortified with folic acid to their diet. A diet rich in folic acid can help lower your unborn child’s risk of certain birth defects.
If you suspect that one of these recommendations applies to you, ask your doctor if you should add supplements or fortified foods to your routine. Your doctor may also recommend taking certain supplements or eating certain foods if you show signs of a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
For some people, taking a dietary supplement may be beneficial. But if you’re in good general health, there’s limited research evidence to suggest that taking vitamin and mineral supplements will make you healthier. In fact, some research suggests that certain supplements can be harmful.
Always talk to your doctor before adding a vitamin or mineral supplement to your routine. If you’ve been taking supplements instead of eating fruits, vegetables, and other nutrient-rich foods, it’s time to rethink your strategy. Remember, there’s no substitute for a healthy diet.