[4 MIN READ]
In this article:
- A dietary supplement is a substance you consume to add nutrition to your diet. Vitamins are a form of dietary supplement, along with herbs, botanicals, phytochemicals and probiotics.
- Although some vitamins and supplements can be beneficial to your health, others carry health risks when taken incorrectly or combined with different medications.
- A registered dietitian from Swedish answers common questions about vitamins and dietary supplements to help get your year off to a “newtritious” start.
If your version of healthy eating relies on taking an alphabet soup of vitamins and downing multiple supplements, you’re in good company.
Recent surveys have found that roughly three-quarters of Americans take dietary supplements, and more than half qualify as regular users. But does that habit actually improve their health?
We spoke to Holly Gilday, RD, a nutrition expert at Swedish, to get answers to common questions about vitamins and dietary supplements. Here’s what she shared to help get your year off to a “newtritious” start.
What is the difference between vitamins and supplements?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a dietary supplement as a substance that is consumed orally to add nutrition to your diet. Supplements include one or more dietary ingredients, including:
- Macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates or fat
- Vitamins and minerals
- Herbs and botanicals
- Phytochemicals or probiotics
“A vitamin is actually a form of a supplement because vitamins supplement the diet of micronutrients,” explains Gilday. “Micronutrients include a wide range of products, including multivitamin-minerals, calcium, vitamin D, herbals, fish oil, probiotics, vitamin D and more.”
Although supplements can be beneficial, there are some guidelines to follow regarding who should use them and how.
“Supplements should be used to supplement your diet. They should not be the main source of specific vitamins and minerals in your diet,” says Holly. “They can, however, be beneficial if they supplement something you’re not getting enough of in your diet.”
Do vitamins and supplements actually help your health?
Dietary surveillance data from the National Center of Health Statistics shows that many adults and children in the United States don’t get enough vital nutrients from the fruits, vegetables and grains they eat regularly. “In those cases, there could be several health benefits from taking certain supplements,” says Gilday.
“On the other hand, supplements may not be beneficial for well-nourished people who consume a variety of foods. Research shows that increased nutrient intake has not translated into reduced risk of chronic disease in people without overt nutrient deficiencies,” she adds.
Some of the most commonly needed supplements include:
- Vitamin D. This is especially important if you live in an area that doesn’t always get enough sunlight to supply adequate vitamin D.
- Omega 3 fatty acids. Is beneficial for supplementing your omega 6 intake.
- Vitamin B12. This is an important addition for vegetarian or vegan diets.
- Iron and folic acid. Are important dietary additions for pregnant people.
How do you know if vitamins/supplements are safe and/or effective?
Dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FDA regulates safety concerns, and the FTC regulates product advertising, labeling and health claims.
Although the intended result is improved well-being, in some cases vitamins and supplements can actually put your health at risk, says Gilday.
“Do your homework,” she says. “Some supplements can interact badly with medications. Vitamin and mineral toxicities can occur if you take megadoses well beyond the recommended daily guidelines. Always know the benefits and risks of any substance you consume regularly.”
“Be skeptical of health claims that sound too good to be true and don’t expect miracles from a pill,” says Holly. She offers the following tips to help ensure the supplements you’re taking offer help instead of harm.
- Bring any vitamins and supplements you regularly take when meeting with your doctor to discuss their effectiveness and safety.
- Shop at reputable stores and websites with a proven track record of maintaining high safety and quality standards in their products.
- Look for supplements that clearly list their contents on the label and pay special attention to any proprietary blends used.
- Learn more from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and these fact sheets from the National Institute of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements.
“Talk to your doctor, pharmacist or a registered dietitian if you have questions. They have a wealth of information to share,” Gilday says.
Learn more and find a provider
Swedish caregivers are dedicated to helping you live an active, healthy life. Our experts in adult and pediatric nutrition, weight loss, diabetes and more are here to help you and your family members develop a plan that meets your unique needs in the most effective way.
Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.