Multivitamins, minerals, and botanicals began to appear in the United States in the 1940s as an over-the-counter way to augment personal health. Yet, despite their 80-year history, there’s still no conclusive research showing that many of the 90,000-plus products on the market generate consistent results for those who take them.

So should you take them? The short answer is sometimes it’s OK, and sometimes it’s not. Taking a supplement based on word of mouth or other anecdotal information is generally not a good idea.

If you’re wondering if you should be taking supplements, or if you’re taking supplements and want to know if you should be, you should speak with primary care physician Leo Kao, MD, of Lakewood Ranch Health.

No shortcuts to nutrition

Whether it’s finding an amazing exercise plan to lose weight or a superfood that can protect you from illness, it’s natural to want to find a shortcut to a better life.

However, dietary supplements should never be a substitute for a balanced and healthy diet. Any of the nutrients you can take in supplement form are already bioavailable through the foods you eat.

In fact, taking supplements can serve as a distraction from healthy eating. For example, some people may not get the nutrients they need from leafy green vegetables because they think their supplements are providing what they need.

Furthermore, if buying vitamins or other products limits your ability to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, then the supplements could be contributing to problems rather than providing solutions.

The benefits of supplements

There are dietary supplements that do provide beneficial effects. For example, women are often told to take folic acid when pregnant. And vitamin B12 deficiencies can result in anemia, so supplements can often help reverse the deficit.

Furthermore, taking vitamin D can bolster bone strength, vitamins C and E can prevent oxidizing cell damage, and zinc can slow macular degeneration and promote healthy skin. And, if you feel better by taking any pill, liquid, or powder that has no detrimental effect on your health, that good feeling itself — called the placebo effect — can give your health a boost.

There’s no guarantee, however, that the supplements you purchase are the same formulations as those that show results in clinical studies. Over-the-counter supplements aren’t always subject to stringent standards.

The risks of supplements

Some additions to your diet may not be benign, and they may come with risks that offset any potential benefit. They can interact with other medications or medical conditions. For example, while beta carotene and vitamin A are safe for most people, these substances can increase the risk of developing lung cancer in smokers.

And, vitamin K and ginkgo biloba can affect blood thinning, and St. John’s wort can reduce the effectiveness of certain medications, such as birth control pills and antidepressants.

If you’re considering adding supplements, or if you’re already taking them, you should discuss the matter with Dr. Kao. He can provide guidance on whether you should be taking anything, and if you should, what and how much. He can also guide you on eating well so you can get the most out of the food you eat.

To learn more about taking supplements and eating well, book an appointment online or over the phone with Lakewood Ranch Health today.

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