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Vitamin and mineral supplements

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Should I take vitamin and mineral supplements?

Some people think that they can make up for a lifetime of unhealthy eating habits by popping a bunch of vitamin and mineral pills each day. Others start taking certain vitamin and mineral supplements because they see stories in the media stating that these supplements may reduce their chances of getting diseases.

If you haven't been eating healthy foods for a long time, vitamin and mineral supplements are probably not going to make up for your poor eating habits. And research on the effects of dietary supplements in preventing diseases is still in the early stages.

In general, people should be able to get all the nutrients they need, including all their vitamins and minerals, by choosing foods wisely. Besides vitamins and minerals, foods such as fruits and vegetables have other substances that promote health in ways that researchers are only now beginning to discover.

There are three main groups of people who might need a supplement:

  • Women who are pregnant or could become pregnant need 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to lower the risk of certain birth defects, including spina bifida. Folic acid pills are best. You also can take a multivitamin that contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid or eat foods with folic acid.
  • People over age 50 may need more vitamin B12.
  • Older adults, people with dark skin, and people who don't get much sun exposure may need more vitamin D.

For these groups, eating foods fortified with these nutrients or taking the nutrients in pill form may be needed.

Before taking any supplement, you should talk with your doctor about whether you need the supplement and, if so, how much you should take. Taking a supplement is not without risks. Taking too much vitamin A during pregnancy, for instance, can cause birth defects. If you are taking a medicine for a health condition, supplements may interact with the medicine in ways that can harm your body. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether taking a supplement will help you or whether you're better off spending your money on healthy foods.

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More information on Vitamin and mineral supplements

Explore other publications and websites

  • Botanical Dietary Supplements - This article explains the safety and standards of botanical (or herbal) dietary supplements.
  • Botanical Supplement Fact Sheets - This site provides an A-Z list of the common botanical supplements that are available. It links to Federal sources on the guidelines and use of each supplement.
  • Dietary Supplements Labels Database - The Dietary Supplements Labels Database offers information about ingredients contained in more than two thousand selected brands of dietary supplements. It enables users to determine what ingredients are in specific brands and how to compare ingredients in different brands. Information is also provided on the health benefits claimed by manufacturers.
  • Folic Acid: Questions and Answers - The purpose of this question and answer sheet is to educate women of childbearing age on the importance of consuming folic acid every day to reduce the risk of spina bifida.
  • Fortify Your Knowledge About Vitamins - This fact sheet contains specific information on the different types of vitamins including their risks, benefits, safety and how much vitamins your body really needs.
  • Tips for the Savvy Supplement User - Making Informed Decisions and Evaluating Information - This publication reviews information consumers should know before starting the use of a dietary supplement, such as possible interactions with prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. It also has tips on searching the Web for information on dietary supplements, as well as information about the safety and value of supplements.
  • Using Dietary Supplements Wisely - Herbal supplements are a type of dietary supplement that contain herbs, either singly or in mixtures. An herb (also called a botanical) is a plant or plant part used for its scent, flavor, and/or therapeutic properties.
  • Vitamin A and Bone Health - This fact sheet explains how much vitamin A you need, how it affects your bones, how too much can be harmful, and what foods contain vitamin A.

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Content last updated: June 17, 2008.

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