Should I Take a Dietary Supplement?

Guillermo’s Story: Guillermo is retired and lives alone. Often, he’s just not hungry or too tired to prepare a full meal. Does he need a multivitamin, or should he take one of those dietary supplements he sees advertised everywhere? Guillermo wonders if they work: will one help keep his joints healthy or another give him more energy? And are they safe?

What is a dietary supplement?

Dietary supplements are substances that can be used to add nutrients to your diet or reduce the risk of developing health problems such as osteoporosis or arthritis. Dietary supplements are available in the form of pills, capsules, powders, gel tablets, extracts, or liquids. They may contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids, herbs or other plants, or enzymes. Sometimes dietary supplement ingredients are added to foods, including beverages. You do not need a prescription to buy dietary supplements. A Variety of Dietary Supplement Pills: Should I Take a Dietary Supplement?

Eating a variety of healthy foods is the best way to get the nutrients you need. However, some people do not get enough vitamins and minerals from their daily diet, and their doctors may recommend a supplement. Dietary supplements can provide nutrients that may be missing from your daily diet.

Talk to your doctor before taking any supplements.

Some supplements may change the way the medications you are already taking work. If your doctor recommends a dietary supplement, be sure to buy the brand recommended by your doctor and take it as directed.

Wondering if you need a dietary supplement? Maybe you do, but usually you don’t. Ask yourself why you think you would like to take a dietary supplement. Are you concerned about whether you are getting enough nutrients? Is a friend, neighbor, or someone in a commercial suggesting that you take one? Some ads for dietary supplements in magazines, on the Internet, or on TV seem to promise that these supplements will make you feel better, keep you from getting sick, or even help you live longer. Often, there are few options: What if I am over 50?

People over 50 may need more of some vitamins and minerals than younger adults. Your doctor or a dietitian can tell you if you need to change your diet or take vitamin or mineral supplements to get enough of the following:

Calcium works with vitamin D to keep bones strong at all ages. Bone loss can lead to fractures in both older women and men. Calcium is found in milk and milk products (low-fat or fat-free are best), canned fish with soft bones, dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, and foods with added calcium, such as breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D: Most people’s bodies make enough vitamin D if they are exposed to the sun for 15 to 30 minutes at least twice a week. But if you are an older person, you may not be able to get enough vitamin D that way. Try adding vitamin D-fortified milk and milk products, vitamin D-fortified cereals, and fatty fish to your diet, and/or use a vitamin D supplement.

This vitamin is needed to form red blood cells. It is found in foods such as potatoes, bananas, chicken breasts, and fortified cereals.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps keep red blood cells and nerves healthy. Although older adults need as much vitamin B12 as other adults, some have trouble absorbing the vitamin found naturally in foods. If you have this problem, your doctor may recommend that you eat foods such as fortified cereals that have this vitamin added or use a vitamin B12 supplement.
Different vitamin and mineral recommendations for people over 50 years of age (2015) The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend how much of each vitamin and mineral men and women of different ages need. Sometimes, consuming too much of a vitamin or mineral can be harmful. Most, if not all, of your daily vitamins and minerals should come from food.

Vitamin B12: 2.4 mcg (micrograms) each day. If you are taking medications for gastroesophageal reflux, you may need a different type of supplement, and your health care provider can give it to you.


Women over 50 need 1,200 mg (milligrams) each day. Men between 51 and 70 years of age need 1,000 mg and 1,200 mg after age 70, but no more than 2,000 mg each day.

Vitamin D:

600 IU (international units) for people 51 to 70 years of age and 800 IU for those over 70 years of age, but no more than 4,000 IU each day.

Vitamin B6:

1.7 mg for men and 1.5 mg for women each day.

When thinking about whether you need to take more of a vitamin or mineral, think about how much of each nutrient you get from foods and beverages, as well as from any supplements you are taking. Check with a doctor or dietitian to find out if you need to supplement your diet.

What are antioxidants?

You may hear about antioxidants in the news. Antioxidants are natural substances in foods that can help protect against some diseases. Here are some common sources of antioxidants that you should be sure to include in your diet:

 beta-carotene—dark green or burnt orange fruits and vegetables; selenium—seafood, liver, meat, and grains; vitamin C—citrus fruits, peppers, tomatoes, and wild berries such as strawberries, blackberries, guavas, and blueberries; vitamin E—wheat germ, walnuts, sesame seeds, and canola, olive, and peanut oils.
 In fact, some studies have shown that taking large doses of some antioxidants can be harmful. As mentioned above, it is best to consult with your doctor before taking a dietary supplement.

What are herbal supplements?

Herbal supplements are dietary supplements that come from plants.

Some you may have heard of are gingko biloba, ginseng, echinacea, and black cohosh. Research scientists are studying the use of herbal supplements to prevent or treat some health problems. It is too early to know if herbal supplements are safe and helpful. However, studies of some of these have shown no benefit.

Are dietary supplements safe?

Scientists are still working to answer this question. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspects prescription drugs, such as antibiotics or blood pressure medications, to make sure they are safe and do what they promise to do. The same is true for over-the-counter drugs, such as those used for pain and colds.

The FDA does not have authority over dietary supplements in the same way it does with prescription drugs. The Federal Government does not regularly evaluate what is in dietary supplements, and companies are not required to share information with the FDA about the safety of a dietary supplement before selling it. Companies are responsible for ensuring that the supplement is safe, but the FDA does not evaluate the safety of the product before the supplement is sold. This means that just because you see a dietary supplement on a store shelf does not mean that it is safe, does what it says it does, or contains what the label says it contains.

If the FDA receives reports of potential problems with a supplement, it will issue warnings about products that are clearly unsafe. The FDA may also order these supplements to be recalled. The Federal Trade Commission reviews reports of advertisements that may misrepresent what dietary supplements do. Some private groups, such as the United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International,, and the Natural Products Association, have their own “seals of approval” for dietary supplements. To get that seal, products must be made following good manufacturing procedures, contain what the label says, and not have dangerous levels of ingredients that the product should not contain, such as lead.

What is best for me?

If you are thinking about using dietary supplements, learn about them. Find out all you can about any dietary supplements you might take. Talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or a registered dietitian. A supplement that seems to help your neighbor may not work for you. If you are reading fact sheets or researching sites on the Internet, be aware of the source of the information. Could the writer or sponsor profit from the sale of a particular supplement? Learn more about how to choose reliable health information sites.

Remember: Natural doesn’t mean safe or healthy.
It has risks.
It could alter a prescription.
Medical conditions may make it dangerous.
Talk to your doctor. Your doctor needs to know if you decide to use a dietary supplement. Do not diagnose or treat a health condition without talking to your doctor first. Learn how medications can interact with dietary supplements.
Shop wisely. Choose brands that your doctor, dietitian, or pharmacist recommends. Don’t buy dietary supplements with ingredients you don’t need. Don’t assume that more is better. It is possible to waste money on unnecessary supplements.
Check the science. Make sure any claims made about a dietary supplement are based on scientific evidence. The company that manufactures the dietary supplement should be able to send you information about the safety and/or efficacy of the product’s ingredients, which you can then share with your doctor. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

What can I do to stay healthy?

Perla’s StoryWhen she turned 60, Perla decided she wanted to stay healthy and active for as long as possible. She was careful about what she ate and became more physically active. She now takes long, brisk walks three or four times a week. When the weather is bad, she joins the walkers at the local mall. On good weather days, Perla works in her garden. When she was younger, Perla quit smoking and started wearing a seat belt. She is even learning to use a computer to find healthy recipes. Last month, she turned 84 and danced at her granddaughter’s wedding!

Try to follow Perla’s example: eat a healthy diet, be physically active, keep your mind active, don’t smoke, see your doctor regularly, and, in most cases, only use dietary supplements suggested by your doctor or pharmacist. Diet Supplements

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