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Dietary supplements are often used to compensate for bad eating habits. Research shows that while some supplements do bring obvious health benefits, the effects of others are questionable or negligible.

Having a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, dairy products, lean meats, and whole foods ensures we are getting all the nutrients the body needs to stay healthy and perform better. But increasingly busy schedules, growing workloads and the world of fast food around us restrain us from cooking and eating healthy.

This is where dietary supplements come in to get that added nutritional boost required to function properly. Today, there is an almost endless variety of health supplements available on the market under the categories of antioxidants, multivitamins, multiminerals, anti-aging, and weight loss supplements.

The important question is: should one take a dietary supplement to compensate for bad eating habits?

It’s advisable to always talk to your health care provider before popping any over-the-counter supplement, as they may have side effects in some cases. For example, if you are already on medication due to certain health conditions, the supplements might trigger undesirable side effects by interacting with these drugs. Also, the effects of many supplements have not been tested on children, pregnant women and some other groups of consumers.

A study conducted on 38,000 women aged 55 and older for a period of 20 years found that taking supplements did not really reduce the risk of any chronic disease or the risk of death from any causes. Rather, some commonly used vitamins and minerals, especially iron, might be associated with an increased risk of death. This doesn’t mean that iron is bad for health. People with medical conditions like anemia need iron to stay healthy. However, for healthy people, taking an extra dose of iron as a supplement may cause more harm than good.

Similarly, researchers found that taking 400 international units of vitamin E daily could lead to increased health risks and a daily dose of vitamin B-6 in excess of 100 milligrams may eventually cause nerve damage. Regular supplementation with Vitamin A may be associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis.

Who Should Take Supplements?

The current dietary guidelines recommend having supplements in the following situations:
  • Adults above 50 years should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as cereals, or take a supplement of the same
  • Adults above the age of 65 years should take 800 IU (international units) of vitamin D daily to reduce the risk of bone fractures.
  • Women of child bearing age should take 400 micrograms of folic acid daily either from fortified foods or supplements, in order to prevent birth defects
  • Pregnant women should take a prenatal vitamin that has iron or a separate iron supplement.

Dietary supplements may also be required if:

  • One doesn’t eat well or eats limited variety of foods
  • A women experiences heavy bleeding during her menstrual periods
  • There has been a surgery and one is not able to digest and absorb nutrients properly.
  • There is a medical condition like food allergy, food intolerance etc.

It’s important to talk to your doctor about the possible side effects of any supplement and its interaction with your existing medicines, before opting for it.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Willett, W. C., & Stampfer, M. J. 2001 Clinical practice what vitamins should I be taking, doctor? N Engl J Med, 345(25), 1819-1824
  • Balluz, L.S., et al. 2000. Vitamin and mineral supplement use in the United States. Archives of Family Medicine, 9, 258–62
  • Clarkson, P. 1995. Antioxidants and physical performance Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 35 (1&2), 131–41
  • Fletcher, R.H., & Fairfield, K.M. 2002 Vitamins for chronic disease prevention in adults Journal of the American Medical Association, 287 (23), 3127–29
  • Troppman, L., Gray-Donald, K., Johns, T. 2002 Supplement use: Is there any nutritional benefit? Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 102 (6), 818–25
  • Ames BN, Wakimoto P 2002 Are vitamin and mineral deficiencies a major cancer risks? Nat Rev Cancer 2:694-704
  • Fulgoni VL, 3rd, Keast DR, Bailey RL, Dwyer J. 2011 Foods, fortificants, and supplements: where do Americans get their nutrients? J Nutr 141:1847-54.Photo courtesy of theglobalpanorama via Flickr:
  • Photo courtesy of Leonard Bentley via Flickr:

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