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Tips for Taking Dietary Supplements

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ByNicole Ferring Holovach, MS, RD

 

Be honest — when was the last time you ate your suggested five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day? Despite your best efforts to eat a balanced diet, you may be falling short of the recommended daily amount of certain nutrients.

Many people turn to dietary supplements to get their recommended intake of those missing nutrients. Supplements can be used to fill in nutritional gaps in your diet and may be especially beneficial for certain groups of people (including pregnant women, menopausal women, vegans, vegetarians and people with food allergies) who may need higher levels of certain nutrients or whose diets may restrict the intake of certain nutrients. 

Here are some general tips for adults who are considering taking a dietary supplement. Remember, even though these products are available without a prescription, you may want to talk to your doctor before you begin taking any type of supplement. Supplements may not be necessary for everyone. Your doctor can help you determine if a dietary supplement is necessary. 


Tip: Watch Your Dosage

Be sure to follow the dosage recommendations printed on the label, or suggested by your doctor, when taking supplements. Remember, supplements provide additional nutrients to those you're already getting from your meals throughout the day. And there's no real health advantage to getting more of a particular vitamin or mineral than you need; in fact, getting too much of certain vitamins or minerals can cause uncomfortable side effects, like vomiting or diarrhea, and more serious health problems, like liver damage. 

Be particularly careful when it comes to the following supplements:

  • Iron: Iron is an essential mineral for the human body whose main function is to carry oxygen to tissues. Iron is also important for maintaining muscle and brain function, as well the immune system. However, if you take in more iron than you need, this metal can build up to toxic levels in the heart and liver. Iron overload can cause symptoms from fatigue and joint pain to sexual impotence and depression. Extremely excessive doses can damage your organs or lead to coma and death. Public health officials recommend that adult men and postmenopausal women — groups that rarely experience iron deficiency — consult a doctor before using iron supplements, as it is rare for people in these categories to be iron deficient. The upper level intake is 40-45 mg, depending on age.
     
  • Vitamins A, D and E: These are "fat-soluble" vitamins, which means your body will store surplus in your liver and fat tissue. While many vitamins are "water-soluble" and can pass through your body with relatively mild side effects, fat-soluble vitamins can build up to toxic levels over time.
     

 

Tip: Take As Directed

Taking your supplement as directed doesn't just mean paying careful attention to the recommended dosage. It is also important to read the label of all of your prescription and OTC medications to understand how any supplement could potentially interact with the medications you take or the foods you eat.

  • Always take your supplement according to the directions on the label. For best absorption, some dietary supplements should be taken with food; you may need to take others on an empty stomach. Fat-soluble vitamins should be taken with a meal containing some kind of fat to aid absorption.
     
  • Certain vitamins and minerals can affect the absorption or efficacy of some medications (including anticoagulants, certain antacids and antibiotics). Make sure to read the labels on both your prescription and OTC medications thoroughly and talk with your doctor about all the medicines and supplements you take and potential interactions.
     

 

Tip: Read Labels Carefully

It's important to do thorough research when considering a certain supplement — and this includes reading the labels carefully, as they can often be confusing. Supplements cannot claim to treat or cure diseases, and they must bear appropriate ingredient and nutrition labeling. Here are some important things to watch out for when considering a particular supplement:

  • Claims that seem too good to be true: Many products boast of unrealistic benefits or results. Watch out for anything claiming to be a quick fix or boasting of a dramatic breakthrough.
     
  • Natural or organic claims: Many people see the words "natural" or "organic" and assume the product is good for you or comes without side effects. However, all supplements can potentially cause side effects or interact with your medications. Therefore, it's important to read all product labels and talk to your doctor about all of the medications you are taking.
     
  • Products that claim to be free of side effects.
     

When choosing a supplement, it's important to get accurate, up-to-date information. Ultimately, your doctor is your best resource for answering any questions you may have.

 

Tip: Never Substitute for Food

Over-the-counter vitamin and minerals can be used as a supplement to your diet, but they should never be used in the place of real food.

 

Tip: Keep Supplements and Medicines Properly Stored

To prevent accidental ingestion, always be sure to store medicines and vitamins up and away and out of your child's reach and sight. And put the medicines or supplement back in its proper place every time you use them.

 

Published June 19, 2013

 

Nicole Ferring Holovach, MS, RD, is a Washington, DC-based nutrition communications professional, writer and health and wellness educator. She blogs about holistic health at www.WholeHealthRD.com

 

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