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What Can Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Do for Your Health? continued...

Keep these additional tips in mind when selecting a vitamin or mineral supplement:

  • Iron and folic acid are also on the list of nutrients of concern for women in their childbearing years (14 to 50).
  • The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that people over the age of 50 get most of their vitamin B12 from synthetic sources, either from fortified foods or dietary supplements.
  • Limit supplemental folic acid to 1,000 micrograms a day. Taking more than this amount increases the chance of developing nerve damage from vitamin B12 deficiency. Grains can be highly fortified with folic acid, with upwards of 100% of the DV in one serving.
  • Women past menopause and men need a very low iron or no iron supplement.
  • Women should be discouraged from getting excess vitamin A as it may cause birth defects if they become pregnant.

Remember to take your supplements. They won’t do you any good if you forget to take them. Set up a routine of taking them with meals or before bed.

What Supplements Can’t Do

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. It is unlikely a vitamin or mineral can deliver on a promise like helping you lose weight.  A promise like that goes beyond the function of a supplement. "Don’t expect a vitamin or mineral to do anything more than it does in food," says Anding.

Promises on labels can stretch the letter of the law by using carefully worded claims that suggest exaggerated results. Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA as drugs are, and some manufacturers may imply that their products have greater powers than the scientific evidence shows.

Multivitamins have long been considered a secret weapon to aid health and preventing chronic disease, but according to several studies, that may not be the case. The National Institutes of Health convened a group of experts to evaluate the evidence on multivitamins and the effect on chronic disease prevention. Researchers found few studies to make general recommendations for or against multivitamins to prevent chronic disease. 

An overall healthy diet and regular physical activity can help prevent chronic disease, not supplements, says Anding.

Who Needs Vitamin and Mineral Supplements?

Anyone whose diet lacks the 40-plus nutrients needed for good health may benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements. In general, the following groups can be helped, but they should consult their doctor or a registered dietitian when deciding if they need a supplement or choosing one:

  • Pregnant and lactating women
  • Vegans and some people on vegetarian diets
  • Anyone on a low-calorie diet (intentional and unintentional)
  • Certain disease states (including people with a history of cancer)
  • People who suffer from food allergies or intolerances
  • Picky eaters who limit food groups, or have limited variety within food groups
  • Anyone with a poor diet
  • People taking certain medications

Vitamins and minerals can be helpful when it comes to providing the missing nutrients in your diet, but don’t trust the clerk in the health food store to tell you what you need to take.