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The Scoop on Supplements

Consumers spend billions of dollars each year on dietary supplements. Here’s what you should know if you take, or are planning to take, any dietary supplements.

Supplements are not food. Vitamins and minerals taken in capsule form may not work the same way in your body as ingesting nutrients as a part of a whole food. And, when you eat nutrients as part of a fruit, vegetable, bean or grain, you get the fiber that comes along with it, which fills you up and leaves less room for junk food.

Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unlike drugs, which must undergo rigorous testing before deemed safe by the FDA, supplements are considered safe until proven unsafe. The FDA usually only intervenes in cases of fraud or recalls. Look for supplements that have a seal of approval from U.S. Pharmacopeia, or NSF International. These seals guarantee the product is contaminant-free and contains what the label says it does, but not that it is safe or effective. 

Supplements have the potential to be harmful. Most supplements are not going to hurt you. But certain vitamins and minerals have upper-intake levels and can be harmful if those limits are exceeded. Plus, some supplements might interact with prescription drugs or could be harmful for people with certain medical conditions. Make sure your doctor is aware of any supplements you are taking.

Supplements may be right for you if you:

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Are a vegetarian or vegan
  • Consume fewer than 1,600 calories per day
  • Have a medical or dental condition, or allergy, that makes it hard to eat foods with certain nutrients
  • Are age 50 years or older