Dietary supplementation is becoming more prevalent in our society as people look for natural health interventions to replace or complement conventional pharmaceutical therapies. In fact, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that over 50% of the adults in the U.S. used dietary supplements during 2003-20061. How do you know if supplementation is right for you? As any good health practitioner will tell you, maintaining balance in any intervention is essential in the avoidance of adverse health effects. Here are a few tips for a balanced approach to dietary supplementation.
What is dietary supplementation?
The FDA defines a dietary supplement as “a product taken by mouth that contains a dietary ingredient intended to supplement the diet.” Dietary ingredients are further defined as:
- herbs or other botanicals
- amino acids
- substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites
These products are intended as a means of correcting or preventing deficiencies or imbalances when diet alone does not provide adequate nutrition for good health. The scope of the supplements listed above is very broad; this article will focus on vitamin and mineral supplementation and we’ll look at other supplements in a future article.
How do I know if I should supplement my diet with vitamins or minerals?
Ideally a healthy and varied diet would provide sufficient nutrient intake to meet and even exceed Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). RDAs are the minimum amounts of specific nutrients which are expected to meet the needs of the majority of healthy people within appropriate age and gender classifications.
These nutrient intake levels are calculated to prevent scurvy, rickets, and other diseases that are the result of nutrient deficiencies. Unfortunately many Americans are unable to meet the minimal nutrient requirements set by the Institute of Medicine, even with the intake of fortified foods. A recent study shows that a large percentage of the U.S. population falls below the established Estimated Average Requirements (EAR) for magnesium and vitamins A, C, D, and E3. This study does not take into consideration the chronically ill, smokers, and other at-risk groups who have higher nutrient requirements than the average person.
In addition, those on restricted diets, such as a vegan diet or a gluten-free diet, may not have different nutritional requirements but may find it more difficult to meet those requirements when animal- or grain-based foods are eliminated from the diet.
The best way to determine whether you should supplement your diet with additional vitamins or minerals is to evaluate your diet. Consulting with a nutritionist or other health practitioner with a background in nutrition is a good way to get started.
A knowledgeable practitioner will be able to help you evaluate your diet and suggest ways to include foods that will bring nutrient intakes to acceptable levels. If you don’t have access to the help of a nutrition professional you can do some basic work on your own. Keeping a food diary is an excellent way to track intake levels. Plugging in the information from your food diary, you can use a tool such as the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference to find approximate nutrient levels in the foods you consume.
The USDA has posted The Institute of Health’s Dietary Reference Intakes here and you can compare your dietary intake to the numbers listed. If your intake levels fall below acceptable ranges, modifications to your diet are the best way to begin improving those numbers.Single Nutrient reports, found here, are helpful in identifying foods that are rich in the nutrients your diet lacks.
If you have adjusted your diet and lifestyle for optimal nutrient intake and still suspect your vitamin or mineral levels are low, you can request blood tests from your health practitioner to check levels. Some tests, such as Vitamin D tests4, are available online. You can perform the test at home and return the sample to the lab for analysis, then follow up with your doctor.
If you are unable to modify your diet or lifestyle to increase nutrient intake, you may want to consider adding vitamin or mineral supplements to your diet.
Next up, we’ll cover how to supplement safely in Part II of this series.