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Are dietary supplements necessary for healthy living?

(1) Dear Alice,

Do you recommend any natural remedies (Melatonin, etc.) as dietary supplements for healthy living?

(2) Dear Alice,

I have been seeing a lot of ads on dietary supplements and have been thinking about trying them. However, I'm not sure if it's a good idea. Could you please tell me if the use of dietary supplements is really worth it?

Signed,
Supplementally Confused

Dear Reader 1 and Supplementally Confused, 

Dietary supplements cover a range of products, including natural remedies, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, and more. Whether these supplements are “worth it” or “useful” depends on how you define those terms. Some dietary supplements can help provide your body with needed nutrients or address specific health issues, but they can't replace a variety of nutritious foods. It can be important to also note that dietary supplements don’t need to be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety or efficacy before being marketed and sold. That said, if something is labeled “natural” it doesn’t always mean it’s safe. Supplements can cause serious health problems on their own or when combined with other things. Before you start taking supplements, consider speaking to a health care provider for guidance. They can share how these products can be used to supplement what you’re already doing to support your health and wellness. 

The recipe for supportive eating habits is one that’s tailored to your caloric needs. It is also a sustainable eating pattern with a variety of nutritious foods. You may consider eating whole foods and avoiding excess salt, added sugars, and saturated fats

That said, if you aren’t getting enough nutrients from your diet, it’s possible that taking dietary supplements can help you improve your overall health. Certain supplements that may improve health and manage conditions may include: 

  • Calcium and vitamin D which help keep bones strong and reduce bone loss. 
  • Folic acid decreases the risk of certain birth defects. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils may help some people with heart disease. 
  • A combination of vitamins C and E, zinc, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin may slow further vision loss in people with age-related macular degeneration

List adapted from the National Institutes of Health 

However, taking supplements can also lead to harsh side effects. Problems can occur when you take supplements instead of or alongside prescribed medications, when you take too many supplements at once, or when you take more than you need. For example, taking too much vitamin A can lead to headaches, liver damage, weaker bones, and birth defects. Be aware that the suggested serving size on the supplement's fact label may not be the right amount for you. It’s possible that you might be getting more nutrients than you realize since some supplement ingredients are already added to common foods like cereals, bread, and both dairy and dairy-milk alternatives. 

To figure out whether a supplement is right for you, you may consider talking with a health care provider and asking them the following questions: 

  • What are its potential benefits for me? 
  • Does it have any safety risks? 
  • What’s the proper dose to take? 
  • How, when, and for how long should I take it? 

List adapted from the National Institutes of Health 

Remember, healthy and natural are subjective to each individual. While there are pros and cons to all of the supplements that are out there, it really depends on what your body might need. Getting support from a health care provider can help you decide what may work for you. Hope this helped satisfy your hunger for some supplemental reading! 

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Last updated Dec 29, 2023
Originally published Oct 16, 1998