The Scoop on Supplements: Should you be taking supplements?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has recommendations for individuals who may need to take supplements, however, the most important way to lead a healthful life is by consuming a variety of nutritious foods.

A person pours a pill onto the hand with oranges on the table in the background
Sydney Wells, Dietetic Intern 2020-2021
Monday, July 4, 2022

Identify the truth behind…

  • Who needs supplements and what nutrients they should contain
  • Regulation and marketing behind supplements for weight loss
  • Recommendations for a healthy lifestyle

Who needs supplements and which ones?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has recommendations for individuals who may need to take supplements, however, the most important way to lead a healthful life is by consuming a variety of nutritious foods. Consuming a variety of nutritious foods is important because they contain different components that are important to health other than simply fueling our bodies.

When a diet is lacking a variety of nutrient dense foods some nutrients and food components may be deficient. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has identified dietary components of public health concern due to the important role they play in health. These nutrients are calcium, potassium, vitamin D and the food component fiber. Although it is possible to supplement each of these, the first line of defense should be incorporating more food items with sources of these nutrients.

Most vitamin and mineral requirements can be met through eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. However, there are certain individuals who may need to take supplements to make up for missing nutrients from their diet or increased needs in a specific life stage such as pregnancy. The dietary guidelines for Americans recognizes fortified foods and dietary supplements are useful when it is not possible to otherwise meet the needs of one or more nutrients.

If deciding to take a supplement, it is always a good idea to read about your supplement on a government website such as the national institutes of health-office of dietary supplements. This contains a summary of research that has been conducted on supplements effectiveness, interactions, and important considerations.

Supplement pills in a heart shape

Safety and Potency

Although the FDA has standards that companies must follow to “help ensure identity, purity, strength, and composition” the facilities are only periodically inspected. There are seals of quality assurance that are independent companies and not associated with the FDA. These organizations offer quality testing but do not guarantee that a product is safe or effective. The names of a few of these organizations are, NSF International, and U.S. Pharmacopeia. One way to help ensure that a supplement you are taking is safer and of good quality is looking for the seal of one of these individement organizations.

Nutrients of Concern

Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables should be the first line of defense in consuming nutrients of concern. Vitamin D requirements are difficult to achieve through natural sources in the diet alone. Many foods and beverages are fortified with Vitamin D to support meeting recommendations such as cereals and milk. Vitamin D can be produced by the body with adequate sun exposure. However, individuals who are in a colder climate or use sunscreen may be deficient. Individuals with darker skin tones also have a harder time absorbing sunlight to convert to vitamin D.

It is important to continuously have adequate calcium as our bones are constantly turning over cells for maintenance. This is why it is always important to have adequate calcium in our diet for healthy bones. Calcium and vitamin D are best absorbed together and is why vitamin D is often supplemented in dairy products. Milk and dairy products are ideal sources of vitamin D and calcium. Look for plant-based beverages and fortified juices and cereals if you do not consume dairy products.

Potassium helps muscles function properly, regulate fluid balance in cells and is important for controlling blood pressure as it limits the effects of sodium. Potassium may also play role in reducing recurrent kidney stones and bone loss with age. Although bananas may be the most well-known source of potassium, you can find more in potatoes and tomatoes!

Fiber comes in two forms: soluble and insoluble. Both forms are important for a healthy diet, but they perform different roles. Soluble fiber is important for preventing spikes in blood sugar and aids in digestion by absorbing water. This also helps you feel fuller for longer. Insoluble fiber also aids in digestion by adding bulk to stool- helping keep you regular.

Leaves are ground up in a bowl next to pill capsules

Individuals Who May Need Supplementation

Daily prenatal vitamins for women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant is recommended. Nutrients of concern are folate/folic acid, iron, iodine, choline, and vitamin D. Prenatals should be discontinued if mother is lactating to avoid exceeding the requirements of iron and folic acid.  Vegetarian or vegan women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant may also need to supplement iron and vitamin B12. Non heme iron found in non-animal food sources is not as bioavailable and may require supplementation for this reason. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products. Breastfeeding vegetarian or vegan mothers may also need to supplement vitamin B12 while lactating. Other nutrients of concern are choline, zinc, iodine, and EPA/DHA (fatty acids).

Infants should receive supplemental vitamin D shortly after birth. Iron may be needed if infants are being breastfed.

Over time the ability to absorb vitamin B12 can decrease. Some older adults may need to supplement B12 for this reason and certain medications can also decrease absorption. Vitamin B12 is found in animal protein sources and fortified foods such as breakfast cereal.

Senior citizen runs along a body of water

Vegan individuals will need to supplement vitamin B12 as this vitamin is only found in animal products. Supplementation can be through fortified foods like cereals or taken as a physical vitamin. Other nutrients of concern include vitamin D, iodine, calcium, iron, and DHA/EPA. To determine if supplementation is necessary, it is important to consider all of your food intake and sources of the nutrients.

Supplements to Aid in Weight Loss

The supplement industry makes huge lofty claims surrounding a variety of types of supplements to aid in quick, easy, and painless weight loss. While these companies advertise their products in a very appealing way, the expense can be hefty. However, evidence regarding the effectiveness of supplements in weight loss is inconclusive. 

Unfortunately, the FDA does not regulate the claims made by companies for validity. Considering the inconclusive evidence and the hefty price supplements are not the most effective way to lose weight. For those reasons it is recommended to focus on lifestyle changes if weight loss is a goal. Eating balanced meals consisting of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low fat dairy and whole grains is the best way to incorporate all the necessary nutrients for a healthy lifestyle. Incorporating movement into your life is another great way to support your health and aid in weight loss. Try going for a walk after dinner or group fitness classes. Find a way to move your body that you will enjoy!

Recommendations for a Healthy Lifestyle

The dietary guidelines recommend “nutrient dense” food as the best way to meet vitamin and mineral needs. Nutrient dense foods are foods that have lots of nutrition packed inside them. The good news is fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy can all be nutrient dense foods. An important component of nutrient density is how meals are prepared. For instance, are meals cooked in the home, at a restaurant, or a manufacturer? While going out to eat occasionally can be fun and frozen meals are convenient, you can control the process in which meals are prepared at home. Cooking at home is a great way to limit added fats, oils, and sodium and is also a great opportunity to include a fruit and vegetable with each meal.

Where to Find Nutrients of Concern
Calcium Vitamin D Potassium Fiber
  • Fortified juices and plant-based milk alternatives
  • Canned fish with bones
  • Tofu made with calcium sulfate
  • Dairy (yogurt, kefir, milk, soy, milk)
  • Spinach, kale, bok choy
  • Rainbow trout, salmon, light tuna, herring, sardines, tilapia
  • Mushrooms
  • Milk, yogurt, kefir
  • Baked potatoes with skin
  • Cooked spinach
  • Raisins
  • Broccoli
  • Cantaloupe
  • Tomatoes
  • Banana
  • Carrot
  • Milk
  • Lentils, quinoa
  • Oats
  • Legumes
  • Lentils
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole wheat breads and pasta

Academy of nutrition and dietetics. Dietary supplement fact sheets. Messina, G. (2019, September 10). Recommended supplements: A vegan nutrition primer.

Office of dietary supplements - dietary supplements for weight loss.

Office of dietary supplements - dietary supplements: What you need to know.