Do nutritional supplements improve your diet?

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
5-minute read
Episode #28

My name is Paige and I’m calling to ask you about multi-vitamins. I have heard many different stories about the health benefits of multi-vitamins. Some say they all do the same thing and it doesn’t matter which one you take. Others say certain vitamins could harm me more than they help and that I need to be very careful about the combination of vitamins I take and the dosages. I’m hoping you can clear up the multivitamin dilemma. Thanks very much for taking my call and I hope to hear about this soon.

Thanks for your question, Paige. You can get a basic one-a-day multi that provides the recommended daily intake of most of the essential nutrients for a few cents a day. And, if your diet is typical of most Americans, it might not be a bad idea.

Vitamin deficiencies can cause serious problems. Not enough vitamin C can cause scurvy, for example. Vitamin D deficiency leads to rickets. Too little thiamine in your diet, and you’ll end up with beriberi. Pellagra is caused by niacin deficiency. Now if berberi and pellagra sound more like the latest dance moves than serious medical problems, it’s because these sorts of nutrient deficiencies are pretty rare in Western countries. 

But there’s a big difference between getting enough nutrients to avoid malnutrition and being well-nourished. In fact, data collected in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey suggest that Americans are falling well short of the recommended intake of many nutrients.

Less than one in five Americans gets the recommended amount of vitamin E, for example. Only about one in four get enough potassium, and fewer than half of us are getting the recommended amount of vitamin A or calcium. Although we may not be dropping dead of scurvy any more, these inadequacies may set us up for heart disease, osteoporosis, and other degenerative diseases.

Of course, it’s possible to get all the nutrition you need without resorting to supplements. But you’d need to eat a balanced diet of healthy foods and there wouldn’t be a whole lot of room for empty calories. Few of us can pull this off consistently. A basic multivitamin is an easy and inexpensive way to cover the gaps—and it doesn’t matter a whole lot which one you choose. Keep in mind, however, that a standard multi won’t contain more than a tiny bit of calcium, so you might still need to take that separately.

Sometimes, Less is More

But what about those super-duper formulas that go way beyond a basic multi? They can provide many times the recommended intake of every nutrient you’ve ever heard of…and plenty you haven’t. If you’re really looking to amp up your health, maybe one of these is a good idea?

Well, Paige, once you go beyond the basic multi, you’re more likely to run into the sort of problems you alluded to in your call. For one thing, you can easily exceed the safe upper limit for certain vitamins. For example, if you’re taking a high-dose multivitamin plus an antioxidant formula, you’ll almost certainly be getting more than 10,000 IUs of vitamin A, not even counting any vitamin A you get from your diet. And that’s more than we consider to be safe.

High doses of some nutrients can also interfere with the absorption of other nutrients. Let’s say someone’s taking a high-dose multi plus an immune-boosting supplement or a prostate health formula. The combination could easily contain over 50mg of zinc, which could interfere with your absorption of copper and cause a copper deficiency.