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Boost energy, lose weight, beat stress, improve performance, and reduce wrinkles! Do these phrases sound familiar?

These are just a few of the promises found on the labels of vitamin and mineral supplements.  But can vitamin and minerals really live up to these claims, or is it more hype than truth?  Is there evidence that a vitamin or mineral supplement really can turn a bad diet into a healthy one, melt pounds away, or put the zip back in your step?

Experts say there is definitely a place for vitamin or mineral supplements in our diets, but their primary function is to fill in small nutrient gaps.  They are "supplements" intended to add to your diet, not take the place of real food or a healthy meal plan.

WebMD takes a closer look at what vitamin and mineral supplements can and cannot do for your health.

Food First, Then Supplements

Vitamins and other dietary supplements are not intended to be a food substitute. They cannot replace all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods. 

"They can plug nutrition gaps in your diet, but it is short-sighted to think your vitamin or mineral is the ticket to good health -- the big power is on the plate, not in a pill," explains Roberta Anding, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and director of sports nutrition at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. 

It is always better to get your nutrients from food, agrees registered dietitian Karen Ansel.  "Food contains thousands of phytochemicals, fiber, and more that work together to promote good health that cannot be duplicated with a pill or a cocktail of supplements."

What Can Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Do for Your Health?

When the food on the plate falls short and doesn’t include essential nutrients like calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, some of the nutrients many Americans don’t get enough of, a supplement can help take up the nutritional slack. Vitamin and mineral supplements can help prevent deficiencies that can contribute to chronic conditions.

Numerous studies have shown the health benefits and effectiveness of supplementing missing nutrients in the diet.  A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study found increased bone density and reduced fractures in postmenopausal women who took calcium and vitamin D.  

Beyond filling in gaps, other studies have demonstrated that supplemental vitamins and minerals can be advantageous. However, the exact benefits are still unclear as researchers continue to unravel the potential health benefits of vitamins and supplements. 

Anding offers these tips to guide your vitamin and mineral selection:

  • Think nutritious food first, and then supplement the gaps.  Start by filling your grocery cart with a variety of nourishing, nutrient-rich foods.  Use the federal government's My Plate nutrition guide to help make sure your meals and snacks include all the parts of a healthy meal.
  • Take stock of your diet habits. Evaluate what is missing in your diet. Are there entire food groups you avoid? Is iceberg lettuce the only vegetable you eat? If so, learn about the key nutrients in the missing food groups, and choose a supplement to help meet those needs. As an example, it makes sense for anyone who does not or is not able to get the recommended three servings of dairy every day to take a calcium and vitamin D supplement for these shortfall nutrients.
  • When in doubt, a daily multivitamin is a safer bet than a cocktail of individual supplements that can exceed the safe upper limits of the recommended intake for any nutrient.  Choose a multivitamin that provides 100% or less of the Daily Value (DV) as a backup to plug the small nutrient holes in your diet.
  • Are you a fast food junkie?  If your diet pretty much consists of sweetened and other low-nutrient drinks, fries, and burgers, then supplements are not the answer.  A healthy diet makeover is in order. Consult a registered dietitian.
  • Respect the limits. Supplements can fill in where your diet leaves off, but they can also build up and potentially cause toxicities if you take more than 100% of the DV.
  • Most adults and children don’t get enough calcium, vitamin D, or potassium according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.  Potassium-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat are the best ways to fill in potassium gaps. Choose an individual or a multivitamin supplement that contains these calcium and vitamin D as a safeguard.