This past week Frontline aired an eye-opening documentary on dietary supplement safety in the United States. If you take vitamins, minerals, or any other type of supplements I highly encourage you to take an hour of your time and watch this video.
I get asked daily about dietary supplements – “What’s supplement is good for _____?”, “what supplement can I take to _____?”. I am always happy to discuss the use of supplements with my patients because it’s important they get evidenced-based information and have their questions answered. Yes, there are times when a vitamin or mineral supplement is beneficial, and in some cases necessary. For example, if someone has a nutrient deficiency that needs to be corrected, is unable to consume adequate amounts through food, or has issues with malabsorption. In general, a standard multivitamin with minerals for “insurance” is likely fine but anything outside of that really should be questioned. Why do you feel the need to take this? Can you get it from food? What’s the data behind the supplement?
Americans spend billions of dollars each year on supplements that are not well-regulated and some may actually cause harm. Unfortunately, the supplement industry is not regulated the same way medications are. Additionally, we seem to have the belief that if something is good, more must be better. I am hear to tell you, more of a good thing is not always better. A few examples: Over-supplementing fat-soluble vitamins can cause toxicity. Excessive zinc supplementation cause cause toxicity as well as disrupt other nutrient absorption such as iron and copper. High dose Vitamin E may increase the risk of prostate cancer. The Frontline documentary also highlights that many supplements contain foreign ingredients that are not on the label or they may contain less or more of the supplement than what the bottle claims. Or in the case of fish oil supplements, an alarming percentage of the supplements tested contained oxidized lipids which can actually be proinflammatory.
Bottom line: Do your best to get nutrients from food, always supplement a deficiency, and use a general daily multivitamin with minerals if you feel you are coming up short on eating a nutrient-dense diet.
How do you know if you have a deficiency? Talk with your doctor and/or dietitian. A dietitian can perform a nutrient assessment, looking at what you are getting and lacking in your diet as well as assess risk factors that may cause or lead to a nutrient deficiency and a doctor can order specific labs to be checked via a blood draw.
Third-party verification. Lastly, if you are going to take a multivitamin or any type of supplement, choose one that has an independent, third party verification. There are companies that test and then certify that supplements contain the ingredients listed on the label and nothing else. Options: