Author: Courtney Conner MS, RD, LD
Posted: June 24, 2022
What are dietary supplements?
Dietary supplements are products that are intended to supplement one’s diet by taking a pill, capsule, tablet, powder, or liquid. A supplement can provide nutrients either extracted from food sources or that are synthetic to increase the quantity of their consumption. They are usually used to supplement areas of the diet that are not readily found in foods or that are not found at a high enough percentage in food. Examples of dietary supplements are vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes. The difference between medicines/drugs and dietary supplements is that dietary supplements are not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure diseases. They are meant to fill dietary nutrient gaps that can help improve health.
In addition, some dietary supplements go through clinical trials with the intent to become drugs that can prevent or treat diseases. However, until those trials are completed, and the results are favorable, they are marketed as dietary supplements. To ensure safety, the FDA regulates dietary supplements so that they don’t contain anything that poses a known risk when used as directed on the label. The FDA can stop a company from selling a dietary supplement if it has been found to be unsafe.
How can dietary supplements be useful in a healthy lifestyle?
It can be overwhelming to determine whether you need a supplement or not. In addition, there are a lot of controversial opinions in the news about whether supplements are needed or not. You may be thinking: Which ones really work? How effective are they? Are they worth the money? These are good questions and ones that we will answer in this blog.
A healthy lifestyle is important to define when it comes to discussing how supplements fit into that. A healthy lifestyle is one that focuses on the body as a whole and fueling the body for optimal performance for the long term. This includes diet, exercise, mental health, and managing chronic disease. Ideally, you should be eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins to get all the necessary nutrients your body needs to function properly. However, there are some nutrients that need to be supplemented due to factors such as pregnancy, age 50 or older, follow a diet that excludes entire food groups, have a medical condition that affects how your body digests nutrients, or have had surgery on your digestive tract. In addition, there are nutrients that are not provided by diet that are helpful in aiding disease prevention.
So, what supplements do you actually need? You can talk with your doctor or dietitian about the nutrients you could be lacking and your risks for chronic disease. If your diet or lifestyle is identified as not providing enough of a certain nutrient or vitamin, your doctor or dietitian would recommend adding a supplement so that you meet adequate intake requirements. For example, Vitamin D, which is usually acquired through sunlight, might be given as a supplement for someone who lives in an area that doesn’t get much sunlight.
For someone who is at a high risk for cardiovascular disease because of genetically elevated cholesterol and hypertension, a supplement that improves cardiovascular function and blood flow can be taken. This supplement is not supposed to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease, but it is used as more of a helpful tool to boost normal heart function. For example, CardioSupport is an herbal supplement that has been clinically shown to improve blood flow to help improve cardiovascular function. In addition, the American Heart Association recommends that individuals with known heart disease consume 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids, primarily from fish. However, when this is not achievable every day, supplementation is recommended.
The main takeaway
While dietary supplements are not required to live a healthy lifestyle, they can be helpful to fill gaps in diet and to help with chronic disease. If you are on a restricted diet or have a high risk for chronic disease, you may benefit from a dietary supplement and should talk to your doctor or dietitian about what is recommended. Overall, you should focus on eating a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins and dairy. And as always, talk with your doctor before starting a new supplement.
- Duyff RL. Use supplements wisely. In: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. 5th ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2017.
- Using dietary supplements wisely. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/using-dietary-supplements-wisely. Accessed June 7, 2022.
- Vitamin supplements: hype or help for healthy eating. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/vitamin-supplements-hype-or-help-for-healthy-eating. Accessed June 7, 2022.