We all know the modern diet lacks in adequate nutrition, yet even the most health-conscious vegans struggle to avoid the processed foods and empty calories of busy grab-and-go lives. No wonder over half of all Americans take dietary supplements. But are these products really essential for good health? Consider the following myths and facts that may help you decide whether supplements are right for you:
Myth: You should take supplements every day.
Fact: A well-balanced diet provides the nutrients you need.
Do you eat the recommended five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables every day? Most don’t, which is why diets are lacking in vitamins and minerals. Instead of taking supplements, Harvard Medical School advises eating a balanced diet with a variety of whole grains, fruit and vegetables that are nutrient-dense. Plants also contain phytonutrients — with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that help prevent cancer and heart disease — that you can’t get from a pill.
Myth: Supplements are a quick fix for a bad diet.
Fact: Nothing can replace a wholesome diet.
“You need to look at [supplements] as a tool, something you take on top of eating right,” says dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a professor at Boston University. When you get most of your nutrition from healthy foods, your body effectively absorbs what it needs. But, with supplements it’s easy to get more than you need, which can be harmful to your health.
Myth: Supplements are totally safe.
Fact: Taking too many can be harmful.
When you take more nutrients than you need, the body stores them as fat and they aren’t excreted. They can accumulate and become toxic. For example, excess vitamin A can increase your risk for osteoporosis. Always check the nutrition label to ensure nutrients provide only from 100% to 300% of the daily recommended value (the nutrients at 300% are ones that aid in absorption). And because supplements can have side effects if taken with medicines (Vitamin K can reduce the ability of blood thinners to work) or before surgery, consult with your doctor before taking them.
Myth: Supplements can cure disease.
Fact: They can’t cure but they may prevent.
“There’s little evidence that any supplement can reverse the course of any chronic disease,” says Dr. Craig Hopp, an expert in botanicals research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Don’t take supplements with that expectation.” (Take the myth that mega-doses of vitamin C cure the common cold: Actually, over 180 mg of C just washes away through the urine.) However, the NIH does link supplements to prevention of disease, if they are part of “a healthful diet that is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, with a high proportion of plant-based foods.”
Myth: Supplements are regulated like drugs.
Fact: They’re treated as food, not drugs.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (1994) created a category for dietary supplements, regulated by the FDA as food. This means they don’t undergo the same strict approval process as drugs, and cannot claim to treat, prevent, or cure disease. Furthermore, the FDA does not monitor ingredients or accuracy of labels. If a product is later found unsafe, the FDA can restrict or ban it.
“Dietary Supplements: Do They Help or Hurt?” Harvard Health Publishing
Debra Witt, “5 Myths about Nutritional Supplements,” NextAvenue
“Should You Take Dietary Supplements?” NIH News in Health
Missy Wilkinson, “Common Myths You Shouldn’t Believe about Vitamins and Supplements,” Thrillist