The dietary supplement business has boomed to a $100 billion industry over the past decade and continues to grow. More than half of U.S. adults take at least one dietary supplement daily or occasionally. The scientific evidence is not quite clear on whether dietary supplements improve health, prevent disease or help us live longer. For those interested in taking supplements, it can be difficult to know which ones to choose. Here are some considerations to make when deciding on adding a dietary supplement to your regimen.

Just because dietary supplements do not require a prescription does not make them unquestionably safe. When selecting a dietary supplement, it is important to consider how they may interact with other medications and supplements and if they are appropriate considering one’s medical conditions. While a basic multivitamin may be safe for most people, popular herbal supplements may pose added risk. Keep your physician abreast of your supplement usage. Your pharmacist can be a helpful resource when it comes to learning about potential supplement-medication interactions.

Keep in mind that words like “natural” on the supplement label do not guarantee safety. The Food and Drug Administration is not authorized to review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness. Some supplements do undergo voluntary third-party testing to help ensure product quality, strength and that the product contains the ingredients listed on the label. These products will boast a package seal showing that it has been approved or verified by the third party.

Dietary supplements are easily available online, but do your research and become informed before purchasing. Steer towards unbiased sources of information such as the National Institutes of Health rather than seller sites. Be wary of dietary supplements that make claims that are too good to be true. Products that assert superiority over prescription drugs or make statements about curing or treating diseases are likely deceitful.

While dietary supplements cannot make up for poor eating habits, they can help fill nutrient gaps for those with reasonably healthy eating habits. Nutrition needs change over the lifespan and dietary supplements can help keep up with these changing needs. For example, certain nutrients are needed in higher levels during pregnancy and lactation so prenatal supplements are recommended to meet these needs. Elderly adults require higher levels of vitamin D, which may be more easily met with a vitamin supplement.

A reduced ability to eat a wide variety of foods could increase the risk of developing one or more nutrient deficiencies. Those with dietary restrictions or food allergies may have more trouble getting all the nutrients they need. Vegans and vegetarians who limit animal products in their diets can benefit from a customized nutrition plan that may include dietary supplement recommendations. A recent study by the BfR Federal Institute for Risk Assessment found a heightened prevalence of a deficiency in the important trace mineral iodine, especially among vegans. Other common nutrients potentially lacking in plant-based eating plans include vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron and zinc.

While dietary supplements can play a role in bridging nutrient gaps and supporting wellness, there is no substitute for a balanced diet. Those interested in getting more of their vitamins from food can pick up the book Eat Your Vitamins by Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN. This book features information about fifty key nutrients for good health along with foods that contain these vitamins, nutrient-rich recipes and much more.

LeeAnn Weintraub, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian, providing nutrition counseling and consulting to individuals, families and organizations. She can be reached by email at RD@halfacup.com.

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By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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