In most cases, the best way to get vitamins and minerals for optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to eat a wide variety of foods rather than take dietary supplements.
Key points about dietary supplements
- Beware of a common mistake – eating badly and using vitamin and mineral supplements to make up for it. The money spent on buying vitamin and minerals supplements is usually better spent on good food.
- Fortified food, eg, milk and yoghurt with extra calcium or breakfast cereals with extra iron, can help provide vitamin and mineral supplements with the added benefit of eating nutrient-rich foods.
- Some people do need supplements, however, especially folic acid if you could become pregnant. Lack of folic acid has been linked with birth defects, such as spina bifida.
- You may also need other supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding, if you are older, have darker skin, menstruate (have periods) or have a vegan diet or certain health conditions that affect absorption from your gut.
(Video: The Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institute of Health, US)
What are dietary supplements?
Supplements are manufactured products that are taken orally in a variety of forms, including tablet, liquid, gummies or powders. They aim to increase your intake of certain vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and enzymes through sources that are either extracted from food or made synthetically (‘man-made’).
Food is usually better than supplements
The best way to get vitamins and minerals for optimal health and reducing the risk of chronic disease is to eat a wide variety of foods.
Many people worry they don’t get enough vitamins and minerals, so buy supplements, especially vitamin C in winter.
But if you eat a range of foods, and also take vitamin or mineral supplements or eat fortified foods like some breakfast cereals, you could get much more of some vitamins and minerals than you need for good health.
Eating well from the main food groups each day makes sure you get the best possible spread of nutrients.
When do people need supplements?
Some vitamin and mineral supplements, however, might be useful for some people.
- Iron deficiency is common in women during childbearing years. Iron supplements may be needed to avoid or treat iron deficiency especially you they don’t eat much meat, fish or chicken.
- Folic acid is very important for women during childbearing years if a pregnancy is planned. Lack of folic acid has been linked with birth defects, such as spina bifida. Read about folic acid/folate in pregnancy.
- Iodine throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Vitamin B12 may be needed if you are older people or vegan (do not eat any food of animal origin).
- Vitamin D may also be needed if you are older, have a dark skin, don’t go outside much or wear clothing that covers most of your body.
- Iron, zinc, folate, calcium and fat-soluble vitamin deficiencies are common in newly diagnosed coeliacs.
- Calcium supplements may be recommended if you are taking medicines for preventing or treating thinning of the bones (osteoporosis) or if you have kidney problems.
What are the concerns about vitamin and mineral supplements?
Many vitamin or mineral supplements are simply excreted in your pee. While they may not be doing you much good, they usually are doing little harm. However, you can take too much of some supplements, which puts you at risk of negative effects. This generally only occurs from high dose vitamin and mineral supplement pills or if you exceed the recommended dosage.
The Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand include tables that give safe upper levels of intake for vitamins and minerals. If you choose to take vitamin and mineral supplement pills, check the dose against the table and make sure you are not exceeding it. Remember to take into account the vitamins and minerals you're getting from the food you're eating as well.
Also tell your healthcare provider about any vitamin or mineral supplements you are taking.
- Supplements Nutrition Foundation, NZ
- Vitamins and minerals: dietary sources supplements and deficiencies BPAC, NZ, 2008
- Dietary advice for people with coeliac disease BPAC, NZ, 2011