According to the latest Council for Responsible Nutrition survey, 68 percent of the U.S. population takes a dietary supplement such as vitamins, minerals, herbs or botanicals. The top reported supplement was a daily multivitamin, although vitamins D, C and calcium were the next most common.
“Many people take supplements, so it’s important to be smart about which supplements you take and how much you’re taking,” said Sara Lee Thomas, a registered dietitian at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. “Getting the correct dose is important — it’s bad to be too low and bad to be too high in a nutrient. People often think that if a little is good then a lot is better, but you can overdose even on water-soluble vitamins and get anything from kidney stones to permanent nerve damage. You really want to be in that ‘Goldilocks’ zone.”
Thomas suggests sticking to the daily value listed on the label of 100 percent.
“The most common misconception is that the daily value is a minimum amount to prevent deficiency, but that amount is actually set high so it will meet the needs of 98 percent of the population,” said Thomas. “For example, you only need 10 mg of vitamin C a day to prevent scurvy, but the daily value for adults is set to 90 mg a day — nine times higher.”
Thomas also encourages looking for good quality supplements. Those that have a seal from independent testing facilities such as the USP, NSF or Consumerlab.com, or are listed on the Consumerlab.com website are your best bet.
“Consumerlab.com reports that one in four supplements has some sort of quality problem — wrong ingredient, wrong amount, contamination, won’t dissolve so the body can use it, and so on,” said Thomas. “Herbal supplements are even more problematic, with 40 percent of them having quality concerns. Weight loss supplements are the worst: Half of those are poor quality. People have gotten sick and even died from taking weight loss supplements.”
However supplements are still an easy way to make up for nutrients that may be missing from your diet. Thomas shares these three supplement recommendations for Oregonians:
Vitamin D —2,000 IU (international units) a day is what works for most people. Take a minimum of 800 IU and a maximum of 4,000 IU a day unless you have had testing and received a medical prescription for more. Scientists have found that you can’t get enough vitamin D from even a healthy diet. We are built to get most of our vitamin D from the sun on our skin, but in Oregon, we have a vitamin D “shadow” that lasts from October to April. No matter how sunny the day, the right rays of sunshine are just not available and our bodies can’t make any vitamin D from the sun.
Vitamin B12 — If you are vegan, are on a daily heartburn medication or are over 50, take 100 to 400 mcg a day. B12 deficiency is slow and sneaky, and sometimes nerve and brain damage occurs before the deficiency is obvious. B12 is very safe.
Fish oil — If you don’t like or don’t eat fish often enough, then one to two fish oil pills a day will meet your normal nutrition requirements for long chain omega-3 fats. You can look for pills that are “enteric coated” if you experience unpleasant fish oil burps. Taking more than two pills a day may be beneficial for conditions affecting mood, heart and inflammation, but these higher amounts relate to therapy, not nutrition, and should be discussed with your doctor, especially those with an implanted defibrillator or who are on powerful blood thinners.
It is very important to share which vitamins and supplements you are taking with your doctor and have the information recorded in your medical record, even if you only take them occasionally. Supplements can interfere with medication, surgery and even regular nutrition.
“Supplements can be beneficial to round out a healthy diet,” said Thomas. “The important thing is to keep you and your family safe and learn what actually helps, what can hurt, and what is just a waste of money.”