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Calcium pills, protein and collagen powders, mushroom extracts, gummies filled with apple cider vinegar or turmeric, melatonin at night – these are just some of the supplements athletes swear by these days, and the list keeps growing. While there’s a supplement for just about every nutritional need, you can quickly find yourself taking whole handfuls of vitamins throughout the day. So, how many supps is too many?
Here’s what experts say about getting your vitamins and minerals from food versus dietary supplements.
Supplements are convenient, but their benefits can be difficult to discern
It’s easy to see why we’re all popping supplements – trying to fit all of the nutrients you need into your meals throughout the day can be straight up exhausting (and just plain difficult). Taking a supplement is a convenient way to track the nutrients you’re getting.
“It’s easier to take a pill than to spend time cooking wonderful, good-tasting food. People are looking for the easy fix,” explains Dr. Donald D. Hensrud, M.D., M.S. of the new Mayo Clinic Diet.
But often, supplements over-promise and under-deliver.
It’s common for supplements to sound better than they actually are. Just take turmeric supplements, for example. They’re prized as a powerhouse dietary addition because they can combat inflammation with good-for-you curciminoids. However, the effectiveness depends on the amount of curcuminoids; you need anywhere from 500 to 2,000 mgs of curcuminoids to get health benefits. And your typical dietary supplement can vary pretty widely in how much you’re actually getting. Popular products contain anywhere from 47.5 mg to 475 mg of curcuminoids per serving.
Additionally, John Hopkins researchers suggest in a review that taking supplements – multivitamins in particular – may not offer any tangible health benefit. Individuals who took multivitamins over 12 years saw no impact or reduction in risk for diseases compared to those who didn’t take them. Plus, the researchers pointed to a balanced diet as a more crucial source of vitamins and minerals.
Getting nutrients through food is almost always best
While supplements seem like a great solution, especially if you’re hoping to prevent illness or enhance wellness, sticking to natural foods is often the better approach.
“In terms of preventative medicine, trying to boost the immune system, [helping] your body sort of function optimally – just let your body deal with things as they come,” suggests Dr. Charles Tabone, N.M.D. of the Los Angeles-based Pause Studio. He suggests that even when you’re sick, aiming to get vitamins and minerals through food is better than relying wholly on supplements.
And here’s another key piece of information to keep in mind: When you’re taking a supplement, you’re not exactly consuming a 1:1 replacement for the nutrients you’d get from food.
“People assume that what they’re getting in a pill is equivalent, but I don’t think the general data is there. In food, there are many, many different nutrients that have beneficial properties. [Typically] we take a supplement for only one specific nutrient,” Dr. Hensrud explains. “Mother Nature is pretty smart and gives us foods that contain all the necessary nutrients that we need.”
Some supplements can be beneficial
For most people, loading up on dietary supplements in the form of pills, gummies, and powders isn’t as effective as getting nutrients naturally. However, if you’re running low on key nutrients that your body needs to function optimally, they can come in handy.
“There are exceptions,” says Dr. Hensrud. “Vitamin D, for example. Many people have low vitamin D levels. And 15 percent of people over the age of 65 have a vitamin B12 deficiency. So, those two are kind of the exceptions in the supplement market.”
Ask yourself these questions if you’re relying heavily on supplements
Are you actually missing any key nutrients in your daily diet?
If you’re eating nutritionally balanced meals and making sure to get the bulk of your nutrients from food, then you likely don’t need a bunch of supplements. However, if you aren’t doing so or are following an eating approach that may skew your nutrient intake, you might want to consider supplementing.
For example, Dr. Tabone highlights veganism as a preference that may leave you a bit nutrient-depleted: “It’s difficult to be a healthy vegan. There’s a lot of very good nutrition that’s found in meats; you have to eat a high quantity of legumes and grains in order to try to get some basic nutrients.”
How much, exactly, of a vitamin or mineral are you getting from the supplements you take?
If you are going to start taking a supplement, inspect the label before buying. You should know exactly how much you’re getting of the vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient in every serving. Unsure how much you need? Ask your doctor so you know what a beneficial range may be for your needs.
Has your doctor recommended supplements?
If your doctor has noted that you’re low on certain vitamins or minerals, then they’ve likely recommended you increase your levels with a supplement. Not sure if a supplement is right for you? Just ask! Your go-to medical professional can offer advice for your unique nutritional needs.