Nutritional supplementsThe use of dietary supplements has grown dramatically over the last decade. How are we supposed to know which supplements to take? Which ones may be a waste of time and money? What if you were told that supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and that they have to be proven unsafe before they can be removed from the market? Would that surprise you? There are so many options when it comes to dietary supplements that it is hard to know what to look for when reading the labels. Dietary supplements are broken down into four categories:

  • Vitamins and minerals are substances required for normal metabolism, essential in small amounts to maintain good health, promote growth and regulate body functions. This category includes supplements like multivitamins, calcium, iron, vitamin D or vitamin C.
  • Specialty supplements are substances that cannot be classified in other supplement categories. This category includes supplements like fish oil, probiotics, melatonin, CoQ10 and amino acids.
  • Herbals and botanicals are plants or plant parts valued for their medicinal or therapeutic properties, flavor or scent. This category includes such supplements as garlic, cranberry, echinacea and ginseng.
  • Sports nutrition and weight management substances are designed to aid in physical performance or weight loss. This category includes supplements like protein powders, protein bars, caffeinated drinks and powders, creatine and ephedrine.

So who needs to take a dietary supplement?

Generally, if you’re healthy and eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and fish, you likely don’t need supplements.

However, the dietary guidelines recommend supplements, or food fortified with the recommended nutrients (e.g., ready-to-eat cereals, breads or dairy products), in the following situations:

  • Adults age 50 or older should eat foods fortified with vitamin B-12 — such as fortified cereals — or take a multivitamin that contains B-12 or a separate B-12 supplement.
  • Adults age 65 and older should take 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D each day to increase calcium absorption.

Dietary supplements also may be appropriate if you:

  • Don’t eat a variety of food or consume less than 1,600 calories a day.
  • Are a vegetarian who eats a limited variety of foods.
  • Don’t have two to three servings of fish a week. If you have difficulty consuming this amount, some experts recommend adding a fish oil supplement to your daily regimen.
  • Have a medical condition that affects how your body absorbs or uses nutrients, such as chronic diarrhea, food allergies, food intolerance or a disease of the liver, gallbladder, intestines or pancreas.
  • Have had surgery on your digestive tract and are not able to digest and absorb nutrients properly.

As you can see, there are quite a few instances where a dietary supplement may be needed, so please talk with your doctor if you have a concern.