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Vitamins and Supplements

Finding Value in Vitamins

The dietary supplement business is booming. In fact, more than half of adult Americans use dietary supplements, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

People most commonly take supplements to improve or maintain their health. And the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports Americans are willing to spend more than $32 billion each year to get the benefits of dietary supplements.

Are you getting your money’s worth?

Does a Vitamin or Mineral Deficit Loom?

According to a national report, only 10 percent or fewer Americans aren’t getting enough of the right nutrients. That means 90 percent or more are getting what they need nutritionally.

The report also notes that nutrient deficiencies vary by age, gender, and ethnicity. For instance, children and teens are rarely low in nutrients. However, 4 percent of older adults are likely to be deficient.

Nutrient deficiency is also more common in people who have certain medical conditions, such as celiac disease or people who have had gastric bypass surgery. There are five top culprits in the general population, listed below.

NutrientPercentage of Americans Who Are DeficientWho’s Most Affected
Vitamin B610.5people over age 1
Iron9.5women ages 12 to 49
Vitamin D8.1people over age 1
Iron6.7children ages 1 to 5
Vitamin C6people over age 6
Vitamin B122people over age 1, particularly older adults

Why Are They Important?

The correct intake of vitamins and minerals is essential for maintaining good health. They’re important to the processes that keep your body operational, including metabolism, cell production, and tissue repair. These nutrients also help prevent diseases such as lung, breast, and colon cancer.

Food Is Your Best Source

You can’t simply pop a vitamin to get the same nutritional benefits. Vegetables and fruits contain a wide assortment of vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that have antioxidant or hormone-like properties. And they contain fiber, which is crucial to digestion and offers a number of health benefits.

When to Use Vitamins and Supplements

The word "supplement" is key. Vitamins and supplements may be added to a well-rounded diet. A group of suggestions from various health organizations and institutions provides some guidance when considering supplements.

American Heart Association

The American Heart Association states that people with documented heart disease and high triglycerides (high levels of blood fats) may benefit from taking EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acid supplements. However, that’s only necessary if you can’t eat fish high in omega-3 at least twice a week. EPA and DHA promote good heart health. 

Harvard School of Public Health

The Harvard School of Public Health says multivitamins are "a great nutrition insurance policy." The institution notes that low levels of vitamin D are associated with a doubled risk of death and increased risk of death in people with cardiovascular problems.

Vitamin D helps the body better absorb calcium and other minerals. It can be found in certain foods, such as dairy products, and can be absorbed by the skin when exposed to sunlight.

You’re at greater risk for vitamin D deficiency if you:

  • live north of the 37th parallel in the northern hemisphere (northern states and Canada)
  • live south of the 37th parallel  in the southern hemisphere (parts of Australia, Argentina and New Zealand)

In the United States, that means anyone who lives in cities like Denver and San Francisco —  and other places to the north — are at increased risk for deficiency. These populations would likely benefit greatly from supplementing their vitamin D intake.

Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic makes these recommendations:

  • Women who may become pregnant should get 400 mg of folic acid daily, from food, fortified food, or supplements. Folic acid may help prevent miscarriage and birth defects.
  • Pregnant women should take a prenatal vitamin that contains iron. Iron is part of your oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Iron also helps deliver oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body — and to your baby.
  • Adults age 50 and older are most likely to have vitamin B-12 deficiency. They should eat foods fortified with vitamin B-12 or take a B-12 supplement.
  • Adults age 65 and older who live independently should take 800 UI of vitamin D daily. Vitamin D contributes to bone health and may help prevent fractures due to falls.

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements

The NIH stresses that diet is the most important source for nutrients. NIH recommendations are the same as those from Mayo Clinic, with these additions:

  • Babies who are breastfed or partially breastfed should be given a vitamin D supplement of 400 IU per day. Vitamin D should also be given to babies who drink less than 1 quart of milk a day. Babies need vitamin D to grow healthy bones.
  • Postmenopausal women should take calcium and vitamin D supplements to help prevent osteoporosis.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Susan York Morris
Medically reviewed on: Dec 23, 2014: George Krucik, MD, MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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